Utah Widow Suing CalFire Over Tanker Related LODD

The widow of Utah battalion chief killed last year while deployed at a wildland fire in California, is suing CalFire, the owner of a 747 airtanker, and two Cal Fire firefighters.

Heather Burchett filed suit for the wrongful death of Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, of the Draper City (Utah) Fire Department. Chief Burchett responded as part of the Utah Multi-Agency Taskforce to the Mendocino Complex Fire in early August, 2018.

On August 13, 2018 he was killed when a tanker drop caused a large tall tree to fall on him.  As explained in the complaint:

  • At approximately 5:25 p.m. a Very Large Airtanker (“VLAT”) or 747 airplane, believed to be owned and operated by Defendant Global Supertanker and its employees, contractors or agents, dropped retardant in the safe drop zone.
  • The VLAT and its pilot had not performed drops in the area and was not familiar with the heavy vegetation and elevation changes along the flight path.
  • The VLAT initiated the retardant drop directly over Matthew and other ground forces.
  • The retardant drop was performed at less than 100 feet above the treetops which is a much lower elevation than the required heights for such retardant drops.
  • As a result, the expected “misting” of the retardant did not occur and the retardant struck the surface, where Matthew and others were located, with incredible force.
  • The retardant struck and uprooted an 87-foot tall Douglas fir with a 15-inch diameter at breast height.
  • The tree fell directly onto Matthew and several others.
  • Matthew sustained fatal injuries and died at the site.

Chief Burchett was serving as task force leader of the Utah task force, and was reportedly in the black when the airdrop occurred. In terms of the specific allegations against Global SuperTanker Services, LLC dba Global Supertanker

  • Making a retardant drop at an elevation that is not reasonable or permissible;
  • Making a retardant drop in the improper location and without understanding the elevation changes along the flight path;
  • Creating an unreasonably hazardous condition for Matthew Burchett and other fire fighters at the Mendocino Fire;
  • Failing to properly warn or protect ground forces, including Matthew, from the unreasonably hazardous conditions;
  • Falling to properly communicate with Division C and other personnel in the area of the retardant drop;
  • Improperly executing retardant drops without obtaining authorization or feedback from ground forces;
  • Failing to follow applicable regulations, statutes, and guidelines for retardant drops at the Mendocino Fire
  • Failing to properly hire, train and supervise its employees; and
  • Otherwise failing to use the reasonable care required of them under the circumstances.

The allegations against the other defendants included:

  • Creating an unreasonably hazardous condition for Matthew Burchett and other fire fighters at the Mendocino Fire;
  • Failing to properly warn or protect ground forces, including Matthew Burchett, from the unreasonably hazardous conditions;
  • Failing to properly communicate with Global SuperTanker and other personnel in the area of the retardant drop;
  • Failing to follow applicable regulations, statutes, and guidelines for communicating with firefighting personnel at the Mendocino Fire
  • Failing to properly hire, train, and supervise its employees; and
  • Otherwise failing to use the reasonable care required of them under the circumstances.

The suit was originally filed in Sacramento County Superior Court last July. This week it was removed to US District Court for the Eastern District of California. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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