Updated: Firefighter dies in tree felling accident in Lolo National Forest in Montana

(Updated at 9:47 a.m. MDT August 4, 2017)

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott announced that a wildland firefighter was killed Wednesday August 2 on the Lolo Peak Fire in the Lolo National Forest in Western Montana. The Sheriff said Brent M. Witham, 29, of Mentone, California, died in a “tree felling” accident. Dispatchers said the man was given CPR after being struck by a falling tree, but rescuers were unable to save his life.

Brent Witham
Brent Witham, screenshot from the 2016 Vista Grande IHC Crew Video.

He was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshots, based in Idyllwild, California according to Lolo Peak fire information officer Mark Struble.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Witham’s friends, family, and coworkers.

Map of the perimeter Lolo Peak Fire
Map of the perimeter of the Lolo Peak Fire, at 2 a.m. MDT August 3, 2017.

Two weeks ago another firefighter was killed by a falling tree on the Lolo National Forest. Trenton Johnson 19, died June 19 while helping to suppress the Florence Fire, a small fire near Florence Lake northeast of Seeley Lake.

Between 1990 and 2014 18 firefighters were killed on wildland fires by hazardous trees, which was 4 percent of the 440 firefighter deaths in the stats for that period kept by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Started July 15 by lightning, the Lolo Peak Fire has burned 6,542 acres 8 miles southwest of Lolo, Montana south of US Highway 12.

This article was updated August 4 to include the name and photo of the firefighter after it was released by the Sheriff.

Fires in Western Montana still very active

The fires are consuming thousands of acres each day and producing large quantities of smoke.

Above: Satellite photo taken August 1, 2017 showing smoke produced by wildfires in western Montana and Northeastern Idaho. The red dots represent heat detected by a sensor on the satellite.

(Originally published at 10:48 a.m. MDT August 2, 2017)

The residents of Western Montana have been dealing with wildfire smoke for several weeks and there is no relief in sight.

Our map above identifies eight of the largest blazes in the area. Here are a few facts about some of them, with them ranked in priority order according to fire management officials.

  • Rice Ridge: Six miles north of Seeley Lake, MT; 3,994 acres, 150 personnel assigned.
  • Sunrise: Six miles south of Riverbend, 9,900 acres, 548 personnel assigned.
  • Sapphire Complex: Three fires, 15 miles southeast of Clinton, MT, 12,756 acres, 864 personnel assigned.
  • Lolo Peak: 8 miles southwest of Lolo, MT, 5,724 acres, 822 personnel assigned.
  • Arrastra Creek: 6 miles northwest of Lincoln, MT, 3,675 acres, 127 personnel assigned.
  • Whetston Ridge: 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg, MT, 3,621 acres, 30 personnel assigned.

Another community evacuated near Sunrise Fire in western Montana

Above: 3-D map of the Sunrise Fire looking west. The red line was the perimeter at 9 p.m. MDT July 30, 2017. The white line was the perimeter two days earlier.

(Originally published at 5:55 p.m. July 31, 2017.)

During the last two days the Sunrise Fire west of Missoula, Montana 6 miles south of Riverbend has continued to work its way down the slopes near the small communities west of the Clark Fork River, moving to within 1.5 to 0.3 miles of the river. As of Sunday night it had burned about 8,200 acres, an increase of 2,700 acres in the last two days.

Another community, Verde Creek, has been added to the evacuation orders that already included Sunrise, Quartz Flats, and Quartz Creek.

The areas of major growth on Saturday and Sunday were on the north and southeast sides.

Sunrise Fire
The Sunrise Fire, July 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Chaffe.

On the south side, the fire continued to burn into the Quartz Creek drainage; retardant was used to slow its spread downslope. On the north side in Sunrise Creek, the fire made an aggressive uphill run towards Eagle Rock and Verde Saddles.

Hotshot crews conducted controlled burning operations to reduce fuels in the Sunrise and Quartz Flats Communities while helicopters and air tankers were busy on all areas of the fire.

Resources assigned include 14 hand crews, 6 helicopters, 31 engines, 5 dozers, 14 water tenders, 4 skidgens, and 1 masticator for a total of 494 personnel.

All articles about the Sunrise Fire can be found HERE, with the most recent at the top of the page.

Sunrise Fire spreads closer to Quartz, Montana

Above: 3-D map of the Sunrise Fire showing the perimeter at 12:30 a.m. MDT Jul 29, 2017.

(Originally published at 10:36 a.m. MDT July 29, 2017)

The Sunrise Fire continued to grow closer to the small community of Quartz, Montana on Friday, spreading east 1.2 miles on the southeast side closing in on Whisky Gulch Road to come within 1.0 to 1.3 miles of the Clark Fork River. It started July 16 in the Lolo National Forest 39 miles northwest of Missoula and 6 miles south of Riverbend.

The fire added another 1,200 acres on Friday expanding to about 5,500 acres as of the 12:30 a.m. mapping flight Saturday. One spot fire was found 0.4 miles ahead of the fire on the southeast side.

Sunrise Fire
Sunrise Fire photo by Phil Milette, undated.

The Mineral County Sheriff added Quartz Creek to the list of evacuated areas which also includes Sunrise Creek and Quartz Flats.

Resources assigned to the fire: 14 hand crews, 5 dozers, 18 engines, 4 helicopters, 14 water tenders, 4 Skidgens, and 1 Masticator for a total of 522 personnel.

The weather forecast for the fire area for Saturday predicts temperatures in the mid-90s, relative humidity in the high teens, with winds out of the south switching to the northwest at 2 to 5 mph.

Sunrise Fire
Firefighters on the Sunrise Fire apply protective wrap to historic structure. Photo by Todd McDivitt, undated.

All articles about the Sunrise Fire can be found HERE, with the most recent at the top of the page.

Firefighters are busy in the Northern Rockies

12 Incident Management Teams and no Area Command Teams are assigned.

The National Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR) shows 28 large fires in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area (NRCC), which is comprised of Montana, Northern Idaho, and portions of North Dakota and South Dakota. The screengrab below from the IMSR shows 18 of the 28 fires.

northern rockies geographic area fires

The IMSR and the NRCC web site have different criteria for reporting their statistics, but according to the NRCC they have the following 12 Incident Management Teams committed:

  • Type 1: Four
  • Type 2: Five
  • Type 3: Three
Wildfires Lolo National Forest
Wildfires on the Lolo National Forest listed on Inciweb at 10:43 a.m. MST July 28, 2017.

As you can see in the image above, the Lolo National Forest alone, which sprawls out in three directions from Missoula, has six fires larger than 1,000 acres plus three others. The workload on the fire management staff managing all those fires, procuring and allocating resources, and supervising the incident management teams has to be overwhelming.

In spite of this intense fire activity, no Area Command Teams have been assigned according to today’s IMSR. This is consistent with how the teams have rarely been used in recent years. In 2015 the number of teams was reduced from four to three.