Utah firefighters facing increase in wildfires across Western U.S.
Sep 21, 2018 04:44PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Structures and acreage are going up in flames across the West in record numbers. (Outside Magazine)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
The tragic Aug. 13 death of Draper City Fire Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, 42, shook the firefighting community to its core, across Utah and the Western United States.
An experienced wildlands firefighter, Burchett was known to his friends and loved ones as someone who was very thorough and meticulous in carrying out his professional duties. Those who make a living in the field, along with the people who love them, were reminded of how dangerous the work is through his tragic loss.
And by every observable piece of scientific evidence available, there is no reason to believe the situation will improve anytime soon.
Unified Fire Authority Assistant Chief Jay Ziolkowski is the UFA’s liaison to Taylorsville City. He said the impact of losing Burchett was significant.
“Matt was one of the most experienced wildlands firefighters we had in Utah,” Ziolkowski said. “He had been with our (UFA) agency for 20 years before moving to the Draper Fire Department in May. A loss like this hurts every firefighter.”
Burchett’s accidental death raises a number of questions for many Utahns unfamiliar with firefighting procedures.
- Was he ordered by superiors to leave our state to fight the California fire, or did he volunteer?
- What is the protocol by which firefighters cross state lines to battle blazes?
- Are there enough firefighters and equipment to combat the growing number of western wildfires?
If anyone would have those answers it is Clint Mecham, a Unified Fire Authority division chief and Salt Lake County’s emergency manager.
“When fires get too large for a state to battle with their own personnel, they make formal requests to other states to send them equipment and firefighters,” Mecham said. “There are various ways to do this. One of those is through something called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. However, the EMAC had never been used to deploy Utah firefighters until last year.”
The significance of that, Mecham added, is how much the recent growth in Western wildfires is taxing resources. In short, more “normal” channels for requesting firefighting assistance had already been depleted, forcing California authorities to pursue assistance in a more unusual way.
“Firefighters are never assigned to go battle an out of state blaze,” Mecham said. “When a request is made, we put the word out to northern Utah firefighters, and they can volunteer for the duty.”
Mecham said there normally is some overtime pay. But he believes the biggest thing motivating firefighters to cross state lines to lend a hand is their sense of duty and the understanding they can expect reciprocation when Utah wildland fires require reinforcements.
Whether people believe it to be global warming, weather cycles or “blind luck,” there is no question the Western states are enduring more charred acreage these days than ever before. Salt Lake Valley residents were reminded of it all summer, by simply stepping outside and struggling to make out the silhouette of the Wasatch mountains, through the smoky haze.
Here in Utah, 370 structures had been claimed by wildfire this year (at press deadline), the greatest property loss in at least 15 years. The average number of Utah structures to go up in flames each year is 49.
Also, at the end of August, the Utah Forestry Fire & State Lands Office reported some $75 million had been spent suppressing blazes on 186,000 acres across the state.
Throughout the West and the rest of the nation, the wildfire trends are equally disturbing.
North of Sacramento, California’s Mendocino Complex Fire, where Burchett lost his life, was the largest blaze in that state’s history. At press time, it had claimed more than 500 square miles and was 70 percent contained.
Nationwide, from 1983 through 1999, there was no year in which 10,000 square miles went up in smoke. However, from 2000 through 2017, there were 10 such years. The burn total (at press time) for 2018 was about 8,900 square miles.
Despite these trends, however, Ziolkowski said recruits continue to apply to become firefighters.
“Our recruit numbers have dropped slightly in recent years, but nothing like the decline in police recruit numbers,” he said. “We still have plenty of good candidates to fill positions.”
But, of course, those are the current firefighting positions available and paid for with tax dollars. The obvious question becomes, if the West continues to burn at its current rate in the years ahead, how many more fire suppression jobs will taxpayers have to fund?