Firefighting dangers: 6 have died battling California wildfires this summer

At fire stations across the state, flags are at half-staff and they have remained that way since mid-July with six people now killed fighting California’s wildfires.

San Jose Fire Battalion Chief Barnett returned last Thursday from the Mendocino Complex fire after 10 days on the fire lines. He said the deaths have been hitting them hard and really speak to how dangerous the job can be.

“Right now it feels like the worst,” said San Jose Fire Battalion Chief David Barnett. “We are in the middle of it. We just heard there's another fatality so it feels like the worst.”

Barnett was the strike team leader of 21 firefighters from Santa Clara County, first deployed to the Cranston Fire in San Bernardino on July 26 for three days. The team was then quickly sent to the Mendocino Complex fire.

“The fire was very active,” said Barnett. “They had some control points, some control lines but they weren't fully controlled.”

The team was assigned to the River Fire near Lakeport. He said, the fire was unpredictable, the territory was unfamiliar, the conditions were bone-dry and the heat was scorching with multiple engines, equipment and aircraft moving fast to protect homes.

“It’s dynamic at times, it can feel chaotic,” said Barnett. “There are risks of trees coming down. There are risks of electricity if the power hasn't been shut off.”

Six firefighters have died this summer including heavy equipment operator Braden Varney and Fire Captain Brian Hughes died battling the Ferguson Fire.  Bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith, Redding firefighter Jeremy Stoke and Cal Fire’s Andrew Brake were killed in the Carr Fire. This week, Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett died in the Mendocino Complex fire.

“It’s just part of the new reality that our fire behavior is incredibly dangerous,” said Capt. Bill Murphy of the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

Murphy returned from the Klamathon Fire in Siskiyou County. Both Murphy and Barnett said right now, they're processing the deaths with more work, homes and people to save.

“There’s some solace to be found in that work but there's also an anxiety because we want everyone to come home,” said Barnett.
 

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