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Ongoing wildfires deadly for firefighters [Updated]

Monday death in Mendocino is sixth fatality this year

Record Heat Fuels Holy Fire In Southern California, Threatening Homes
A firefighter in Southern California, responding to the ongoing Holy Fire.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

[Update: On Tuesday Cal Fire identified the firefighter who died Monday as Battalion Chief Matt Burchett of Draper, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Burchett, a 23 year veteran, was one of 40 Utah firefighters and one of five from Draper voluntarily deployed to California to bolster local fire crews. Burchett had previously served in the state in 2009 and 2016.]

An unidentified firefighter died Monday while working on the record-breaking Mendocino Complex Fire (the largest wildfire by acreage in California history), pushing the 2018 death toll among state firefighters up to at least six and setting a grim record.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that this was already the deadliest year for Cal Fire personnel since 2008.

Despite the inherent dangers of the job, most years see only one or two fatal incidents on fire lines. Even the devastating 2017 Northern California fire surge accounted for only one on-the-job firefighter death.

In 2008 the death toll for the season was 13, nine of which came as the result of a helicopter crash.

Mendocino-Complex Fire In Northern California Grows To Largest Fire In State’s History Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But this year has seen a surge in fatal incidents. Last week, 40-year-old firefighter Andrew Brake crashed his car en route to help fight the Carr Fire in Shasta County.

Previously, 81-year-old bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith was fatally burned working on the same fire; and Jeremy Stoke, 37, died after being caught in a “fire tornado” at the Carr incident.

The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite resulted in two fatalities in July: A falling tree struck firefighter Brian Hughes, while a bulldozer accident killed Braden Varney a few weeks prior.

Monday’s death was the first on the Mendocino Complex Fire. Cal Fire has not yet identified the victim or manner of death, except to report that the person in question came in from a Utah fire crew to assist with the current conflagrations and that they were airlifted to a nearby hospital after being injured.

The unusual size and speed of the fires this year may contribute to their dangers. Personnel shortages—in July, hundreds of calls for more firefighters and equipment went unanswered because there was simply no one else to send—might exacerbate dangers as well.