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Utah firefighters could face deadly conditions in California

Firefighters make a stand in the backyard of a home in front of the advancing CZU August Lightning Complex Fire Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Why California wildfires are so dangerous...

Almost two years ago to this exact date, Unified Fire Authority’s Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett and his team were on the front lines battling the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California.

When it was all said and done, the Mendocino Complex Fire would go down in history as California’s largest wildfire. The angry and ravenous fire would consume half-a-million acres and destroyed close to 300 buildings and structures.

On August 13th, 2018, the 42-year-old Draper resident and veteran wild-land firefighter was leading a multi-task force team composed of Utah firefighters and a strike team from Kings County, California.

Chief Burchett and his band of firefighters were deployed to an area just northeast of the sleepy town of Ukiah in the northernmost section of the Middle Mountain Range at an elevation of just over 3,000 feet.

Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett

The team of firefighters was assigned to a pocket of forest surrounded by manzanita bush, brush and tall Douglas Fir trees, your common Christmas tree.

At 5:25pm, it was 82 degrees and breezy. Burchett and his crew were working tirelessly to solidify a fire-line when they called in for a fourth retardant drop.

The pink flame-suppressing liquid is often dispersed from a tree-top hugging and slow moving modified airplane. 

When you watch a retardant drop on video, the billowy cotton candy looking cloud seems to just float innocently to the ground.

But, the pink liquid cloud form can be very dangerous and potentially deadly. 

The delivery vehicle that day, the behemoth modified 747 supertanker or VLAT ( Very Large Air Tanker ). The modified jumbo jet can hold more than 19,000 gallons of fire suppression liquid and can drop a line of retardant a mile-and-a-half long.

To put that in perspective, that would be like walking from the Utah State Capitol to the Salt Lake City and County Building or roughly 25 football fields.

Dropping fire retardant is a delicate aerial dance that requires detailed and careful choreography. The massive supertankers are led into the aerial drop zone by a small guide plane that leaves a smoke trail for the pilot of the 747 to follow. In the below video, a C130 Air Tanker from the California National Guard 146th Airlift Wing makes a retardant drop during the Rim Fire in August 2013.

But, there was a misstep in the air that fateful day. The communication between the pilots of the guide plane and the albatross weighed down by retardant just amiss.   

The supertanker was flying too low and had to quickly climb to avoid, “a rise in elevation” according to the findings of a green sheet report issued by the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection or CAL Fire

The enormous air tanker unleashed its nearly ten tons of retardant just 100 feet above the treetops. 

I spent a few days embedded with the California inmate wild land firefighters at their camp high in the San Bernardino Mountains about a two-hour drive south of Los Angeles when I was an executive producer for Al Jazeera America. 

An inmate who was caught in the line of a retardant drop told me it felt like a “wave at the beach crashing over your feet at high tide”.

For Chief Burchett and his team the force of the retardant drop must have felt like the first wave of a tsunami crashing ashore.

The force of the retardant drop uprooted an 87-foot tall Douglas Fir with a 15-inch diameter at breast height

Informational Summary Report of Serious or Near Serious CAL FIRE Injuries, Illnesses and Accident, CAL FIRE

According to CAL FIRE’s probe, “the retardant drop uprooted an 87-foottall Douglas Fir with a 15-inch diameter at breast height. It fell on task force leader 2 and caused fatal injuries. The drop also sheared an 89 foot tall, 18 inch Douglas Fir 29 feet above the base”,

An illustration from CAL FIRE’s Informational Summary Report of Serious or Near Serious CAL FIRE Injuries, Illnesses and Accidents reporthttps://mendovoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Green_Sheet_18_CA-MEU-009504_Firefighter_Injuries_and_Fatality.pdf

The blast of debris would injure three other members of Burchett’s team. 

Three dozen Utah firefighters gathered early Saturday morning at the Maverik Center in West Valley City and deployed to California to assist in the herculean firefighting efforts there. 

The destructive disaster is never far from the back of the minds of the majority of Californians because there is no wildfire season in Calfornia, it’s all year round.

This late sweltering summer, the Golden State is ablaze again. As of Sunday morning, more than 500 active fires throughout the state have blackened close to a million acres. According to the experts, that’s an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

The largest wildfires burning in fire ravaged California are the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex fires burning in the northern and central part of the state. 

Complex fires are multiple wildfires burning so close together that a single crew assigned to the area will work to contain them simultaneously. The SCU Lightning Complex fire is made up of 20 separate fires stretching across five counties in Northern and Central California. 

This ravenous fire is consuming the dry fuel at an historic pace. As of Saturday evening, the wildfire scorched roughly 340,000 acres making it the second-largest fire in California’s history. The blaze is only 10% contained and by the time firefighters are able to declare full containment it will undoubtedly be the largest in history.  

More than 12,000 firefighters are fighting the wildfires from the ground and air but the crews are stretched thin. The need for reinforcements is dire. At a briefing Friday, California Governor Gavin Newsom said almost 100% of all wildfire engines are in use and fire fighting trucks from as far away as New Jersey are bound for California.

The largest fires the state of California has had to battle in recent memory, arguably in modern recorded history

California Governor Gavin Newsom

Crews from across the Western U.S. like our contingent from Utah are headed to battle what Gov. Newsom called,  “the largest fires the state of California has had to battle in recent memory, arguably in modern recorded history.” 

Firefighters from out of state gain valuable experience working in different terrains and fire conditions, but operating in a California can be humbling.

“Our fuel models are a little bit different fire activity when it comes to that stuff, I would say it’s a little more extreme out there,” Bud Higgins of Layton Fire Department told ABC4 News in 2019.

These fires are not only the largest but they are proving to be the most dangerous. Close to 150,000 Californians are under evacuation orders and have fled their homes. The wildfires have claimed at least six lives and injured 33 civilians and firefighters

Just Friday, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office helicopter crew performed a nighttime rescue after two firefighters became trapped in heavy brush and couldn’t escape the fast-moving fire. The daring nighttime rescue was posted to their Facebook page and can be seen below. https://www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/videos/806241483502810

As some of Utah’s finest firefighters head into harm’s way for a more than two-week tour of duty, the brothers and sisters Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett left behind reflect upon the legacy he left behind.

” I can’t say enough. There’s probably not a day that goes by that I personally don’t think of Matt’s family and the sacrifice that Chief Burchett has made for our community, ” Draper City Fire Deputy Chief Bart Vawdrey told ABC4 News.

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