Thousands pay final respects to fallen firefighter

Aug 20, 2018, 11:31 AM | Updated: 7:47 pm
Fallen firefighter Matthew Burchett's casket arrives at the Maverik Center...
The casket bearing the body of Battalion Chief Matt Burchett is carried into the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)
(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

WEST VALLEY CITY — Thousands of people packed West Valley City’s Maverik Center Monday to pay their final respects to a fallen Utah firefighter, killed while helping fight wildfires in California.

Draper City Fire Department Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was hurt when a tree fell over while he was fighting the Mendocino Complex Fires, California’s largest-ever wildfire. Burchett, 42, was taken to the hospital, where he later died.

Firefighters from all over the country as well as the state gathered in advance of the funeral. An honor guard accompanied Burchett’s body as his casket arrived at the Maverik Center. A band of bagpipers played while the casket, draped with an American flag, was carried into the building for his memorial.

Joining the Draper department in May, Burchett was a veteran firefighter who served 20 years with the Unified Fire Authority. He grew up in Midway, becoming a wildland firefighter almost immediately after he graduated from Judge Memorial High School in 1994. His family remembers Burchett as fearless.

“You made rope swings and bike ramps and challenged your sense of fear and that of those around you. We believe this was the first inkling of your call to be a firefighter,” they wrote in his obituary, which is presented as a letter written to Burchett. 

Of his wife, Heather, and young son, Griffin, the obituary continues: “You were a patient and gentle father. You taught him the importance of kindness, generosity, acceptance, and many skills for life. Skiing, multiplication tables, mountain biking, and how to build and run a gourmet lemonade stand were just a few. You taught Griff how to ‘Matt-Gyver‘ the world.”  

Unified Fire Authority Spokesman Eric Holmes says, tearfully, “I’m really sorry for his wife and his boy, the rest of his immediate family and anyone who was touched by the tragic events.”

Holmes says Burchett was a great person to sit and chat with, and he always told wonderful stories.

“It’s going to be hard to recover.  It’s going to be hard not to think about him on a regular basis,” he says.

There will be some sort of physical tribute from UFA to Burchett with his name on it; however, the department hasn’t determined what it will be.  Spokesman Matthew McFarland says Burchett’s legacy will live on through the firefighters he has trained.

“Over 20 years, he’s trained more wildland firefighters than I can possibly identify,” McFarland says.

Hundreds of people who didn’t know Burchett found ways to pay tribute to him as he was being taken from the Maverik Center to the Eastlawn Memorial Hills Cemetery in Provo.  Many people parked on the overpasses over I-215 and I-15, waving flags and holding signs of support.

Plus, people came to the intersection of Foothill Drive and Canyon Road in Provo, which is close to Burchett’s final resting place.

Daisy Gonzalez-Jackson says she wants to be an EMT, and people like Burchett inspired her to do so.

“Our first responders, officers and firefighters, they deserve a lot of respect.  I think it’s a good thing to have a lot of people coming out to show their support, especially for his family,” she says.

Plus, an off-duty police officer felt he needed to come and support a man he calls his “brother.”  He says, “Being in this line of work, we know that those circumstances can come.  So, for this gentleman, it’s an honor to come here and show my respect for what he did.”

Fire agencies from all over the state and at least one outside the state sent firefighters to Draper and the Unified Fire Authority to help staff their departments so the firefighters who knew Burchett best would be able to attend his memorial.

This story will be updated.

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