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Murray Journal

Murray fire crew recalls tragic stint battling California wildfires

Sep 17, 2018 02:11PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Utah firefighters (left to right: Patrick Cullen, Draper and former Murray High School Fire Cadet; Trent Christensen, Lone Peak; Eric Nish, Pleasant Grove; Steve Olson, Murray; Conner Carpenter, Draper) on the California Mendocino Fire frontline.

By Shaun Delliskave|[email protected]

Intense. Difficult. Out-of-control. These are the words that Murray City firefighters used to describe their experience battling the record-setting Mendocino Complex Fire in California. The Murray Wildland Fire Unit, assigned to Utah Task-Force 2, was present when tragedy struck their team leader, Draper City Fire Chief Matt Burchett, who succumbed to fire-related injuries. 

With over 300,000 acres spread over approximately a 50-mile radius, the fire far exceeds the confines of the Jordan River Parkway, which the wildland unit typically responds to. Captain Steve Olson, a 16-year veteran, along with firefighter Jeff Puls (also with 16 years of experience) and engineer Cameron Willden, with six year’s fire service, left Aug. 2 for a 16-day deployment. 

“Murray FD was one of the first to step up and answer the call,” said Olson. Murray’s three joined up with 36 other Utah firefighters to form two task forces. Other departments sending firefighters included Draper, Pleasant Grove, Lone Peak Fire District (Alpine, Highland, Cedar Hills), Provo, Salt Lake City, West Valley, and Uinta.   

The deployment to the Mendocino Complex was received via the Utah Department of Emergency Management as an Emergency Management Assistance Compact request. This request means that the fire in northern California became large enough and complex enough that state, local, county, and adjacent jurisdictions had become exhausted. California declared a state of emergency, which led to them calling on assistance from neighboring states that could send wildfire resources to help.  

Murray City was able to send their wildland engine 683, a wildfire equipped/off-road capable vehicle. Murray Engine 683 caravanned with other engines from the Maverick Center to Ukiah California’s command post. They started fighting the huge blaze upon arrival. 

According to Olson, “The access was difficult for larger fire engines, so our Task Force relied heavily on smaller, more mobile ‘brush-trucks.’ Most all the firefight was in remote, off-road areas where we were required to establish check-lines through the forest to halt fire progression and protect the nearby communities.” 

Since 2015, Murray FD has been a "State Cooperator"—a deployable resource at the request of the State of Utah for larger fires within the county, state or region. This means that when the need arises for additional fire engines and personnel to respond to an area with a massive fire, Murray can send its units to assist based on the State Fire Operating Procedures. It also provides the opportunity for firefighters to gain more experience. 

“Think of it like this, when a fire is sparked along the Jordan River, for example, we can confidently say that our firefighters have handled and contained much bigger and more complex fires,” remarked Olson. 

When Murray resources are deployed to an out-of-jurisdiction fire, there is a cost recovery system in place that allows Murray to receive payment for the work performed on those fires.  This becomes a revenue source for Murray City that helps to cover program costs for the fire department, wages, and wear and tear on the vehicles and equipment.  

Beyond equipment wear and tear, these deployments also require personal sacrifices.

“It's a big commitment for the firefighter who must be available for the two-to-three week commitment; this means putting everything else on hold, including family, vacations, home obligations, community involvement, hobbies, and other interests. Our families must support the deployment as well. If things aren't right at home, then we couldn't go. The three of us have amazing wives who showed incredible support for us and ‘held down the fort’ for us while Dad was away. This included getting kids ready to start a new school year,” Olson noted. 

Some sacrifices are the ultimate sacrifices that firefighters know too well. Murray’s deployment was cut short due to Chief Burchett’s death. Olson reflected, “Matt Burchett was our task-force leader, which meant during the deployment he was our boss. He was dependable, kept us safe and led us through some tough assignments. He had a great sense of humor and was a joy to be around. He was an amazing firefighter, leader, and friend. We had complete trust in his judgment and were grateful to have benefitted from his experience.” 

Murray firefighters participated in Burchett’s funeral, including raising a flag over the funeral procession as it passed through Murray.