In the shadow of Lolo Peak’s fire-scarred mountainsides, a section of Highway 12 will forever honor the memory of a California man who died in the wildfires of 2017.
On Thursday, more than a hundred Lolo residents, firefighters and family members gathered outside the Lolo Creek Steakhouse to remember Vista Grande Hotshot crewmember Brent Witham and dedicate a 12-mile section of Highway 12 west of Lolo in his name.
It was almost exactly two years ago that lightning sparked a fire that eventually spread to almost 54,000 acres and filled the skies above Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley with smoke for days.
The summer of 2017 had turned hot and dry. After originally burning to the west into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the fire started to turn after winds shifted, causing spot fires to multiply in late July. In anticipation of a week of searing heat, Lolo homeowners were warned to be prepared to evacuate, and hot shot crews were brought in.
On Aug. 2, airplanes were busy dropping fire repellent while fire crews worked hard to build firelines to protect homes along Highway 12 and Highway 93. Witham, a 29-year-old sawyer with a decade of experience, was trying to cut down a 50-foot pine tree along a firebreak when it fell suddenly, crushing him. He died within minutes.
The news hit locals hard as the wildfire raged on.
On Thursday, many of those locals extended their hands and sympathy to Witham’s family, who had traveled to Montana for the first time to see the unveiling of the road sign identifying the “Brent Witham Memorial Highway.” Present were Witham’s father Mark, his mother Donna Giordano and her husband Dave, and his cousin Mike Costello.
U.S. Forest Service firefighters from districts around Missoula County – Missoula, Seeley Lake and Ninemile – and crews from the state and rural fire stations all came to pay their respects to a man who died a long way from home.
Jennifer Schultz of the Lolo Community Council read a thank-you letter to the family.
“(The fire) came so close to being a catastrophe for Lolo, the amazing hard work of the many firefighters that came to help us was the only reason the fire was held at bay,” Schultz said. “The fire line that Brent Witham gave his life constructing for us is the reason that the communities that Lolo and Woodman weren’t destroyed.”
The highway dedication was the result of a bill passed this session and carried by state Sen. Diane Sands. Sands used to work for the Forest Service, so she wanted to acknowledge Witham’s sacrifice. The memorial section extends from mile marker 20 to 32.
“I went to every fire meeting when he died. So I wrote the bill,” Sands said. “It’s what we do in the Forest Service – take care of our people.”
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnik thanked the family for coming and read a county proclamation declaring Aug. 2 as Brent Witham Day. Slotnik was standing in for Commissioner Dave Strohmeier, a former wildland firefighter, who had a family emergency.
“When someone dies, those who love him or her hold onto their memory forever,” Slotnik said. “By allowing all of us to do this memorialization of a chunk of highway, you’re allowing us to share in holding onto that memory. It becomes forever for anyone who passes this stretch.”
Two years have passed, but Witham’s memory appeared to still be fresh for his mother, who occasionally had to fight back tears as she thanked those assembled for their support.
Costello, a former fire chief in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., said Witham’s family has a long history of service, from the military to law enforcement and “lots of fire.” Costello remembered that his son Logan, another hot shot, had fought on a fire with Witham two weeks before the accident.
“We understand the sacrifice,” Costello said. “We understand the risk. Brent loved what he was doing. But it’s still hard.”
On Friday, another highway will be dedicated to a Missoula firefighter. An 8-mile stretch of Highway 83 through Seeley Lake will be dedicated to Trenton Johnson, a 19-year-old firefighter with Grayback Forestry Inc. and a Hellgate High School graduate.
A falling snag hit Johnson while he was fighting the Florence Fire northeast of Seeley Lake in July 2017.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.