Although letters to the editor are often used to thank heroes for their service, they can seem inadequate. A few sentences can’t do justice to a soldier’s battlefield death or a civilian first responder’s sacrifice to protect strangers, their homes or America’s natural or historic resources.
So I choose to use a guest opinion to thank the people of Utah and your fellow Utahn, Battalion Chief Matt Burchett of Draper, who lost his life in August fighting a wildfire far from his home and much closer to mine.
Burchett came to California in response to one of our most devastating recent wildfire seasons. He was killed when a supertanker, a 747 that carries 12,000 gallons of fire retardant and can spread it in a mile-long path over a fire, apparently deposited its load near a fire crew and dislodged a tree that fell on the group.
People nationwide know about these wildfires — an annual struggle for every Western state and province. The hearts of Californians still ache over last year’s losses. The October cluster in Napa, Sonoma and neighboring counties killed 44 people and consumed 8,900 buildings, including 5 percent of residences in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people. Only weeks later, 22 people in Ventura and Los Angeles counties died and 1,000 buildings were destroyed in a series of wildfires and resulting landslides; until August 2018, that was the largest wildfire in state history.
This year’s Yosemite-area wildfire got worldwide attention because it closed the park for several weeks, but Southern California also saw major fires. Farther north, one near Redding and Shasta Lake killed three firefighters and five residents and burned 1,000 homes; the Mendocino Complex conflagration 100 miles north of San Francisco exploded into 720 square miles, California’s biggest ever, and took the life of Matthew Burchett.
He did not have to come here; he volunteered, along with other Utah firefighters and hundreds from around the country. In fact, help often comes from Eastern states, Canada and even Australia and New Zealand, which are well suited to exchange wildfire mutual aid with California because our summer is their winter. Utah news media described Burchett as an outstanding firefighter, neighbor, family member and friend — exactly the kind of person who thinks of others first and volunteers when it would be easier and safer to stay home. This is true of countless military, police, fire, health, public utility, transportation and other personnel who keep their fellow citizens safe 24/7/365.
As a retired fire inspector, I have a special perspective on first responders. My task was to prevent calamities through education and code enforcement, so I was not routinely in harm’s way. However, I was also a 911 dispatcher, a first responder in another sense. Dispatchers are often the first to know when lives are in danger. I had to use my judgment to evaluate calls and send emergency responders to situations that could have put them at risk.2 comments on this story
In a public safety career of three decades, I worked with hundreds of police and fire personnel, and as a longtime National Park Service volunteer, I work with rangers and other park staff. Over the decades, I have come to see all first responders as brothers and sisters, and the loss of one of them is a personal loss to me.
So I want to reach across the miles separating me from most Deseret News readers to express California’s gratitude. Our states share the yearly ordeal of wildfires and will continue to answer the call to each other’s need, and dedicated professionals will always be ready to risk their lives to save people they will never meet. Thank you, Chief Burchett, and thank you, Utah.