SALT LAKE CITY -- Emergency responders, public officials and the community are mourning Tuesday after a Draper City firefighter died while fighting a wildfire in California Monday night.
Battalion Chief Matt Burchett suffered injuries while fighting the Ranch Fire in an active area within the Mendocino Complex fire in California. He was air-lifted to a nearby hospital, where he later died.
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention said Burchett's fatal injuries were caused by a falling tree.
"These men are American heroes," Draper Mayor Troy Walker said. "They literally stand in the fire and help other people. I don't know how you get better than that. I know [Burchett] was proud to do it, every one of them are."
Burchett was known to friends and colleagues as a friendly guy who loved serving his community.
"Matt would always would wave, smile. And he did that to pretty much everybody," neighbor Jim Foster said. Burchett lived in Draper, and Foster said he'd see Burchett in a fire truck in the neighborhood.
He said every year at Christmastime, Burchett would bring Santa to all the neighborhood kids-- in fire fighter fashion.
"The neighborhood would have the Santa come on the engine, and Matt was always the one who would always get us the fire engine," Foster said. "It was great."
Burchett's fellow fire fighters spoke about their dear friend and colleague on Tuesday, saying Burchett-- who they called 'Matty'-- had served with Unified Fire for 20 years before becoming Battalion Chief at Draper.
"Everybody really knew him well, and he knew everybody," Keith Garner with Unified Fire said. "He was full of energy, always on the go."
Garner explained the many different roles Burchett played in Unified Fire over the course of two decades, from working at different stations including Midvale and Herriman, to serving in various departments like emergency operations. Burchett started wildland fire fighting in the 90s, and according to Garner and other colleagues, that was his area of expertise.
Burchett usually headed out of state at least once every summer to help fight wildfires, and Garner indicated that Burchett had gone to California last year.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement Tuesday mourning Burchett.
“Jeanette and I were heartbroken when we learned that Fire Battalion Chief Matt Burchett died fighting the California wildfires. 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. He gave everything to defend the lives of others. By so doing, he exemplified the greatest love and bravery of which humans are capable. We mourn for his dear wife and son. They are in our hearts and in our prayers.”
The Utah Division of Emergency Management stated they are mourning the loss of Burchett and are working with officials in California to bring his body back home to Utah. They say the "expert wildland firefighter" was deployed to California to lead one of the two Utah task forces sent out under a state-to-state mutual aid compact.
"Matt was a great emergency management partner at the local level. He was always professional, kind and genuine. He had the ability to make you feel like you had been friends forever. We will be forever grateful for Matt. He was doing a noble work and we will miss him."
Salt Lake County Emergency Management tweeted a link where the public can make donations to Burchett's family:
Various fire and police agencies around Utah have also reached out with words of support.
Statement from Draper City’s Fire Chief Clint Smith:
“Draper City Fire Department has no words to describe the depth of sorrow we are feeling upon learning of the death of Battalion Chief Matt Burchett while assisting with the devastating California Wildfires. Matt is a true hero who has given the ultimate sacrifice while serving others. Matt is a strong leader and experienced wildland firefighter who always put the safety and needs of his subordinates first, but most of all, Matt was a devoted husband and loving father. His family was his world. We are grateful to those fellow firefighters that were with Matt and for the immediate aid they were able to render. We pray for all firefighters, friend and family affected by this tragic loss. This event has rocked our small department to its very core but we will work to honor Matt’s legacy and sacrifice and care for his family.”