DRAPER, Utah (AP) — Matthew Burchett said goodbye to his wife and 7-year-old son in early August, volunteering to travel with 37 fellow firefighters from Utah to help battle record-setting blazes in California.
Burchett was hit by a falling tree and died Monday night while fighting the largest blaze in California history, the Mendocino Complex fire north of San Francisco. Cal Fire division chief Todd Derum told the Press Democrat that Burchett was battling flames downstream of a dam when he and three other firefighters were hit by the tree.
Cal Fire did not respond to questions about the condition of the other firefighters.
In Utah, city and fire officials in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper recalled Burchett as a veteran firefighter with extensive experience working on wildfires.
"These men are American heroes," Draper Mayor Troy Walker said. "They literally stand in the fire to help other people. I don't know how you get better than that. I know he was proud to do it. I know all of them are."
A large American flag flew at half-staff outside the town hall, and smaller American flags were put up lining the sidewalk. Burchett, 42, was one of five Draper firefighters who went to California, Walker said.
He had just started with the Draper Fire Department in May after 20 years with another Salt Lake City area fire department. He was a battalion chief who was hired to oversee the city's wildland firefighting efforts, colleague Bart Vawdrey said.
Burchett was a good man with a dry wit who was very professional and a "master of his craft," said Vawdrey, a fellow battalion chief.
"It's tough anytime you lose a brother," Vawdrey said. "We get into this profession to help people, and Matt jumped at the chance to go assist in California."
Burchett was a captain with the Unified Fire Authority in Salt Lake City and left when Draper offered a promotion, said Keith Garner, a spokesman for Unified and former colleague.
Garner said Burchett loved hiking, skiing and being outdoors and would go at least once a year on wildfire deployments. He went last year to California as Utah's liaison, working on the ground and in the command centers to establish strategy.
Burchett's younger brother is also a Unified firefighter, Garner said. His son was set to start first grade this month.
Firefighters from all over the country and some from overseas have been helping California battle a series of deadly and devastating wildfires that have spread through drought-parched forests and rural communities.
Six firefighters have died in those wildfires.
The governors of Utah and California both issued statements on Burchett's death.
"When he left with his fellow firefighters to battle the wildfires in California we were so proud of his service — now his heroism leaves us both proud and devastated," said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. "He gave everything to defend the lives of others."
California Gov. Jerry Brown said: "Firefighters from across the nation - and world - have selflessly battled California's massive wildfires, and sadly today we mourn the loss of one of those heroes."
This story has been corrected to the firefighter's son is 7-years-old, not 6.
Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this story.