A 29-year-old California firefighter was identified Thursday afternoon as the latest victim of western Montana’s 2017 wildfire season.
Brent M. Witham, of Mentone, Calif., was killed in a tree-felling accident Wednesday on the Lolo Peak fire, according to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
Witham was a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the Vista Grande Hot Shots, based on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.
He was given CPR at the scene of the accident and airlifted to a Missoula hospital, but could not be revived, according to the sheriff.
Missoula County’s commissioners expressed their condolences to Witham’s family and fellow firefighters in a statement.
“This tragic news has a deep impact on our community,” said commissioners Jean Curtiss, Nicole Rowley and Dave Strohmaier. “We are heartbroken for the family and friends of Brent Witham and wish them comfort and healing throughout this exceptionally difficult time.
“This ultimate sacrifice was made while keeping us safe from wildfires,” the commissioners wrote. “These efforts are never to be underestimated or underappreciated. We ask that you please join us in support of our firefighters and all those who serve and protect our communities.”
Witham’s death was the second firefighter fatality in Missoula County, and on the Lolo National Forest, in as many weeks.
On July 19, Missoula firefighter Trenton Johnson died when he was hit by a snag during the initial attack on a wildfire outside Seeley Lake. Johnson was 19 and a graduate of Hellgate High School.
The commissioners said they “will continue to keep Brent, Trenton Johnson, their families, friends and coworkers in our thoughts.”
The sheriff’s department added its own message: “As a department, our hearts go out to the Witham family, members of the U.S. Forest Service family, and all wildland firefighters across the nation,” said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Brenda Bassett.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell offered his sympathy and support to all of the agency’s employees, as well as to Witham’s family and friends, in a statement Thursday.
“It is with a heavy heart that I officially confirm what many of you may have heard – we lost one of our own Wednesday afternoon on the Lolo National Forest’s Lolo Peak fire in Montana,” the chief wrote. “My heart and thoughts go out to his family, crew and friends today, and I ask you to keep his family and friends in your thoughts as well.
“I also extend my gratitude to many of you for your response to the incident, as well as your acts of kindness and expressions of support for the employees of the Pacific Southwest and Northern regions as they come to terms with this tragic accident.”
Tidwell reminded agency employees that Witham’s death comes amid a “significant outbreak of wildfires in the West, as a result of high temperatures and lightning. We expect these outbreaks to continue over the coming weeks. Many other crews will be deployed to respond. Safety must remain paramount as we confront this severe season.”
Details of Wednesday’s accident continue to emerge, according to Tidwell, who said he would keep employees apprised “of the latest information when it becomes available.”
“As we reconcile ourselves with this loss and move forward together to respond to wildfires and complete mission work at home, please take the appropriate safety measures,” the chief said. “Take care of yourselves and each other.”
The Lolo Peak fire has burned more than 6,500 acres and was actively burning at the time of Wednesday’s fatal accident. Additional details of the accident have not yet been released, either by the sheriff’s office or by the Forest Service.
Across the state, as many as 26 fires are listed as active, including 10 on the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the last wildland firefighter to die in Montana occurred at Fort Shaw in 2014 due to a vehicle accident. Last year, according to NIFC, 13 wildland firefighters died across the country.
To date, 1,114 wildland firefighters have died in the line of duty dating back to 1910 when record keeping began. The deadliest year on record was 1994, when 35 wildland firefighters were killed, including 14 who died in a burnover in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.