On Aug.21, yesterday, news of a 42-year-old Utah firefighter who died battling the Mendocino Complex Fire last week, may have been killed after a massive air tanker dropping retardant broke apart trees, causing debris to fatally wound him, according to a preliminary Cal Fire report.
At about 5:35 p.m. on Aug. 13, a Very Large Air Tanker, one of Cal Fire's converted DC-10s or Boeing 747s, dropped a retardant load along Division C of the Mendocino Complex Fire in Mendocino County. Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was killed by tree debris and three other firefighters received minor injuries, according to the report.
The incident was serious enough that Cal Fire issued recommendations for "immediate corrective actions."
"Fire line personnel must remain clear from areas being impacted by aircraft retardant/water drops with overhead hazards," the report stated.
The three-sentence preliminary report did not provide any more details on the event. Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said, "no further information could be released and a more thorough report would follow that likely would provide a more definitive cause of Burchett's death.""
The retardant drop came from the big guns in Cal Fire's air fleet—either a DC-10, which carries up to 12,000 gallons of fire retardant, or a 747, which carries up to 24,000 gallons. Fire retardant is made up of water, fertilizer, or ammonia phosphate, and some type of chemical to give it the signature and highly visible red coloring.
Mark Grissom, a wildlands firefighter since the 1990s, said he's never seen a fire retardant-related injury, but he has seen the tops of trees explode as the heavier-than-water slurry hits the canopy.
"It was bound to happen," Grissom said. "If you drop a full load of retardant at a low drop point and it's still a solid mass it's gonna blow the (expletive) out of the tops of trees."
Many of the larger planes simply drop the retardant out of the belly of the plane and the liquid mixture falls to the ground at the same speed as the planes, which can be 250 to 300 mph. Add to the equation drought-weakened or dead trees and Grissom said it can be a hazard.
Planes must fly low to make sure the retardant hits the ground, adding wind from the aircraft to the trees and a thicker consistency to the retardant when it hits the foliage.
Putting firefighters out there so close to jumbo plane drops with heavy red chemistry and clay put there lives at risk. This reminds me of how Fire Chiefs will not send firefighters in raw lumber buildings under construction that are on fire . For Fire Chiefs the decisions to save a wood framed building has to be supported by a proactive effort that sprayed 100% of the raw lumber with clean fire inhibitor making the building safer to send firefighters in. If we could only do the same with proactive clean fire chemistry drops that create breaks around housing tracts perhaps the front line of the fire would not be worth sending young firefighters in so close.
Dropping red clay fire bombing in wild fires is similar to dropping Napalm. Our young firefighters can not be subjected to those types of coordinates where a drop can break trees and kill a firefighter we are putting them way too close to danger to win against a raging wild fire.