Fallen Utah firefighter Matthew Burchett remembered by family and comrades for his Cheshire cat grin and stubborn determination

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Firefighters gather at the funeral services for Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Monday Aug. 20, 2018.

When Matt Burchett reached the top of the wooden ladder in another go-around through the obstacle course, his fire chief was standing there, waiting for him.

“Hey, Burchett,” he yelled. “Are you ready to quit?”

“Hell no!” he shouted in response and started down the other side of the wall. While Mike Watson stood there wondering why a new recruit just cursed at him in training camp, Burchett had scrambled back up and stepped onto the platform. “I mean, ‘Hell no, sir,’” he corrected.

“I just started giggling,” Watson recounted to the more than 2,000 people gathered at the Maverik Center to eulogize Burchett on Monday during his funeral, held at the same site where the Draper battalion chief had departed less then three weeks earlier with a volunteer crew of Utah firefighters going to California.

The parking lot was filled once again with fire engines, this time to honor Burchett, 42, who died during the deployment while fighting the massive Mendocino Complex Fire after a tree fell on him.

Watson talked of a man with stubborn determination and a funny sense of politeness — who never forgot to call his superiors “sir.” Burchett’s colleagues joked about his messy hair, “Cheshire cat grin” and “perverse pleasure” in completing difficult workouts. His siblings said he loved having a cup of coffee before each of his shifts — though he still fell asleep during his first night call in 1999, said his brother, Dominic Burchett.

“Good morning, firefighter Burchett. I hope you slept well,” he recalled the dispatcher announcing to the crews in the morning.

Many in the audience laughed; a few wiped away tears.

Burchett was smart and hardworking and, well, difficult to fully capture in words. Still, his family and friends tried.

Tom Burchett said his son always left him voicemails that started, “Hey, Dad. It’s me, Matt!” When he died, Tom listened to some of the messages. He wanted to remember what his voice sounded like.

He held his phone up to the microphone Monday and played a few. “I’ve got some metal, and it turns out it’s extremely heavy,” Burchett says in one of the messages with a laugh. “We’re going to drop Griff off at your place,” he says in another about his 6-year-old son staying with his grandparents for the weekend.

Tom Burchett cried as he heard them again. And he called his son’s cellphone to leave one last voicemail of his own.

“Hey, Matt. It’s me, Dad,” he said. “Call us back when you get a chance. Love you.”

In the stands, there were hundreds of firefighters in their dress blue uniforms — many from Unified Fire Authority, where Burchett spent most of his career, and Draper City Fire Department, where he ended it.

Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith presided over the service, detailing the devotion of the late firefighter, who died Aug. 13. Burchett started working with UFA full time in September 1999 after passing the grueling training course of “chutes and ladders.” He had previously worked with the division as a seasonal firefighter since 1995.

Burchett joined Draper’s team as a battalion chief this past year. When Smith saw his application, he immediately wanted to hire him.

“I became very nervous whether he’d actually accept the position or not,” Smith recalled.

He sat in Burchett’s office this week after his death, torn up by the loss and reflecting on the “perfect fit” he hired just a few months ago. As Smith looked around the room, he saw sticky notes everywhere — on Burchett’s desk, computer, bookshelf.

“I couldn’t read a dang thing on them,” he said with a laugh and a sniffle. “Man, he has horrible handwriting.”

But while he loved his job, for Burchett, his son, Griffin, and his wife, Heather, certainly came first.

Griffin carried his dad’s fire helmet into the ceremony and wore it on the way out. It was too big for him and slid down over his eyes. Heather held tight to Griffin’s hand and cried.

Smith read a statement from Heather about Burchett, expressing her gratitude and her sorrow, her inability to say just how much she will miss her husband. Outside the ceremony, there were pictures from their wedding day in which Burchett tugged at her white dress and had a smile so big that his raised cheeks forced his eyes shut. There was one in which he had Griffin on his shoulders. In another, the three of them kneeled in front of a sunset.

Burchett’s sisters talked about the “gourmet lemonade stand” Burchett built with Griffin, the perfect match he was for Heather, how he loved to ski and how he recovered after a 2015 stroke “still more intelligent and capable than the rest of us.” The crowd laughed and many shook their heads in agreement.

“The thought of another day without your smile, the sound of your voice or your presence is more than we can bear,” said Gina Zipp.

“Matty, we love you,” added Monica Brinkerhoff.

Their brother Dominic, a captain with Unified Fire Authority who worked side by side with Burchett, talked about the bike ramp they built when they were kids. Burchett persuaded Dominic to go first. After all, he was two years younger, a little lighter and his “bones would heal more quickly,” he recalled of his brother’s persuasive argument.

The stack of firewood and two-by-fours collapsed. “I have the scar to prove it,” Dominic Burchett said with a laugh.

The two were inseparable, working at the same Mexican restaurant growing up, climbing Grand Teton together — only to realize that Burchett had read the guidebook wrong and they were actually on a different mountain range — and running for the power tools as soon as their parents were out of the house. They agreed, too, that if they ever got in trouble, Dominic would take the blame with the cops and Matt with their mom and dad.

“He has pushed me, guided me and mentored me my whole life,” Dominic Burchett said.

On the night his brother died, Dominic was camping. Burchett was supposed to be on the trip with him but had volunteered to go to California. After he got the call, Dominic said he looked up at the sky and saw 10 shooting stars. They were “brilliant, bright, high-speed and way too short-lived.” Just like his brother.

Burchett is believed to be the first Utah firefighter to die battling a wildfire since 2006. That year, U.S. Forest Service firefighter Spencer Koyle, 33, died in what was then called the Devil’s Den Fire east of Oak City.

Burchett traveled to blazes in California in 2009 and 2016, too.

His funeral started with bagpipes and the firefighter’s prayer. It ended with a last call and a bell rang three times to symbolize the end of his service. “Matty Burchett has completed his task, duties well done.”

His crew then carried his flag-draped casket outside and loaded it into a Draper firetruck with a short wooden ladder. Watson, Burchett’s one-time chief, watched from the long line of service members, who outnumbered the hundreds of American flags planted in the grass. Some had worked with Burchett, a few had gone to California with him. Others had trained with him under Watson’s direction, climbing up a much larger ladder.

He saluted. Hell yes, sir.