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Near Air Disaster Triggered Fatal Wildfire Retardant Drop

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF/AP) -- An error by a lead plane nearly ran a firefighting 747 into a clump of trees during efforts to curtail the Mendocino Complex fire in August, triggering a low elevation drop of retardant that led to the death of a Utah firefighter and injuries to three others, authorities said Friday.

A report released by California's firefighting agency detailed the Aug. 13th incident where Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was killed.

Burchett, a suburban Salt Lake City firefighter, was crushed by an uprooted tree, while the others were stuck by debris from a second tree. Two had deep muscle contusions and ligament damage. One also suffered broken ribs, while the fourth firefighter had scratches and abrasions.

Matt Burchett
Matt Burchett (Unified Fire Department)

The pilot and a supervisor flying ahead in a small guide plane led the giant modified jetliner nearly into the trees because the pilots failed to recognize that there was a hill in the flight path, according to the Green Sheet report by the state's firefighting agency.

The guide pilot "made a 'show me' run" for the 747 pilot over the intended path for the retardant drop, and marked the path for the jet with a smoke trail.

"Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the (747) pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path."

The ground sloped up about 170 feet so quickly that the 747 cleared the hilltop in just two seconds, according to the report. The Boeing 747 was flying only 100 feet above treetops when it dumped nearly 20,000 gallons of flame-suppressing liquid. The retardant struck with such force it uprooted an 87-foot tree that fell on Burchett.

The report warns that some firefighters have used their cellphones to record retardant drops, which can be distracting and harm their ability to recognize the danger and take evasive action. But it does not say if any of the four injured firefighters was taking video at the time.

The guide planes have two people aboard, a pilot and an "air tactical supervisor." California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Mohler could not immediately say if either would face investigation or discipline for not identifying the hill.

The Mendocino Complex Fire charred 459,102 acres and destroyed 157 homes before it was fully contained.

© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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