Firefighter Matthew Will died after the bulldozer he was manuevering in an attempt to free another machine rolled down a steep Palo Colorado Canyon hill, CalFire reported Monday.

CalFire released an initial report of its investigation into Will’s death on Monday, and officials expect to have a final report and a cause of Will’s death within 60 days.

Will, a 30-year-old Hollister resident, husband and father of two, died Oct. 9 from injuries he suffered while fighting the 50-acre fire in southern Monterey County the day before.

Santa Cruz-San Mateo Unit Chief John Ferreira said CalFire has gathered all the facts and witness statements from the accident, but is waiting on information about the mechanics of the bulldozer Will was driving.

According to the report, Will was creating a cut, or level bench, in a hillside to free another bulldozer that could no longer safely move.

When Will was passing through the cut for a second time, dirt fell out from beneath the right track of his bulldozer, the report stated. The right track of the bulldozer dropped about two feet and eventually tipped over, according the report.

The bulldozer rolled 154 feet down a 83 percent to 94 percent slope and came to rest at the bottom of a steep drainage in Palo Colorado Canyon, the report stated.

Ferreira said investigators will convene again Nov. 13 to work on a final review of Will’s death.

According to coworkers, Will had expressed concern about soft dirt in Palo Colorado Canyon.

While investigators do not know exactly what went wrong at the Colorado Fire that day, Will’s death highlights the often dangerous job bulldozer operators are asked to perform.

CalFire Hollister Air Attack Base Chief Mark Edria, who was Will’s boss and friend, said that bulldozer operators are often alone and on the frontline of wildfires.

“It is, by far and away, one of the more dangerous operations,” Edria said the week of Will’s death.

Mike Urciti, who oversees most of CalFire’s fleet in Northern California, said there are strict requirements for bulldozer operators. He said Will not only had practical experience operating bulldozers, but he also had passed a standardized test and went through a six-week academy to prepare him for driving heavy firefighting equipment.

The 62 bulldozers that CalFire maintains are used to create lines around wildfires to prevent them from spreading. The job Will performed is crucial to CalFire’s firefighting tactics, Urciti said.

“Those guys are the unsung heroes a lot of the time,” Urciti said.

There are many factors that create dangers for bulldozer operators, such as steep and changing terrain, and smoke and dust, Urciti said.

“There’s an inherent danger that goes along with that,” Urciti said.

Operators rely on experience to navigate those dangers while fighting fires, Urciti said.

The death will likely raise safety awareness for the 120 bulldozer operators across the state, Urciti said.

“People, I think, are often wanting to create a box to put a bulldozer in,” Urciti said.

Will’s death was the third bulldozer-related death in CalFire history – the other two occurred in 1945 and 1954, according to CalFire.

Will is survived by his wife, Diana Will; their 10-year-old son Trysten; and 8-year-old daughter Elsie.

Michael Van Cassell covers public safety and agriculture for the Free Lance. Reach him at 831-637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected].

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