Fallen firefighter Brent Witham is taken home to California

(Above: Several hundred people gathered to honor fallen firefighter Brent Witham at the Missoula Airport as he began his journey home to California. U.S. Forest Service photo.)

(Originally published at 6:10 p.m. MDT August 7, 2017)

Firefighter Brent Witham was escorted back to California Monday. Mr. Witham died August 2 after being struck by a tree while he was working on the Lolo Peak Fire in the Lolo National Forest in Western Montana. He was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshots, based in Idyllwild, California.

Brent Witham
Brent Witham

Monday morning a procession took him from a mortuary in Missoula, Montana to the local airport where he was met by 350 to 400 firefighters and others who stood at attention as an honor guard transferred the casket from a hearse into a waiting red and white U.S. Forest Service twin-prop Sherpa aircraft normally used to deliver smokejumpers to remote fires. As bagpipers played, the rear cargo door was closed and the Sherpa with its special passenger slowly taxied and took off bound for the San Bernardino airport.

(These next four photos of the scene at Missoula were provided by @R5_Fire_News and were taken by U.S. Forest Service photographer Kari Greer. The last five are screenshots from live coverage by the Los Angeles ABC station, Channel 7.)

Brent WithamWhen Mr. Witham’s Sherpa arrived at the San Bernardino airport it taxied to one of the air tanker pits where air tankers park while being reloaded with retardant. As in Missoula, many firefighters, perhaps two hundred or more from our very rough guess while watching the live TV coverage, formed lines to honor their fellow firefighter as he was slowly carried by six members of the honor guard and placed into another hearse.

A group of people in civilian clothes, probably family and friends, stood nearby observing the very formal, practiced movements of the honor guard. One elderly gentleman was supported by two men as he and the family members walked 100 yards to waiting agency vehicles which fell in behind the hearse as another procession began which took Mr. Witham to the Montecito Memorial Park & Mortuary in Colton for interment. Law enforcement motorcycles and sedans joined dozens of firefighting apparatus as they took Mr. Witham on his last journey, this time only five miles.

Brent Witham

ABC7 reports that a public memorial service is planned to honor him on Thursday at the National Orange Show Events Center (Orange Pavilion, Arrowhead entrance) in San Bernardino. Doors open at 9 a.m. and the service begins at 10.

Brent Witham

The images below are from the ABC7 live coverage.

Brent Witham
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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.

A dozen large wildfires within 70 miles of Missoula

Above: Wildfires in Western Montana, July 25, 2017.

(Originally published at 10:30 a.m. MDT July 25, 2017)

Residents of Missoula, Montana are used to the impacts wildfire season brings to the area. Occasionally the area is inundated with smoke for days or weeks at a time.  Today at least a dozen large wildfires are burning within 70 miles of Missoula. Most of them are south or east of the city so the northwest wind predicted today will blow much of the smoke from the fires away from town.

missoula smoke
Photo from a camera at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, showing some smoky haze in the air at 8:45 a.m. PDT July 25, 2017.

The national Incident Management Situation Report groups fires by Geographic Area and lists those Areas by priority, and within each Area the fires are listed by priority. The Northern Rockies Geographic Area, identified as the highest priority today, is comprised of Northern Idaho, all of Montana, most of North Dakota, and relatively small portions of Wyoming and South Dakota.

fires Northern Rockies Geographic Area
The 12 highest priority fires in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area, July 25, 2017. “Ctn” means it is a full suppression fire. “Comp” is less than full suppression.

Today’s report lists 21 large fires in the Northern Rockies with 18 of them being in Montana. The first 10 priorities are in Montana and 8 of them are in the western part of the state.

The two that are in the eastern part are the top two priorities in the Area:

Lodgepole Complex of Fires: 250,000 acres, 16 homes have been destroyed. Firefighters are making good progress. Over the last 48 hours the only large growth has been on the northern end near Lake Fort Peck. More information.

Buffalo Fire: This is a new fire reported July 24. At last report it had burned 2,000 acres and is near the Wyoming/Montana state line. An Incident Management Team from Alaska that was staged in the state has been assigned.

Fires in Eastern Montana
Fires in Eastern Montana, July 25, 2017.
Lodgepole Complex of fires
The north portion of the Lodgepole Complex of fires. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:52 a.m. PDT July 25, 2017. The red line was the fire perimeter at 9 p.m. MDT July 23, 2017.

Below is some information about a couple of fires closer to Missoula:

Lolo Peak Fire; 1,090 acres 17 miles southwest of Missoula and 10 miles southwest of Lolo. It was active Monday and Monday night on the north, west, and south sides, spotting across a drainage and advancing to Lantern Ridge.

Sapphire Complex comprised of Sliderock, Little Hogback, and Goat Creek fires: 20 to 31 miles southeast of Missoula. All three fires were active Monday, primarily on the east and southeast sides. Combined they have burned 4,539 acres.

An executive order signed by the Governor of Montana Sunday will enable the state to mobilize National Guard helicopters (Blackhawks and CH47), some firefighters, and kitchens. It also makes it possible for local governments to access the Governor’s emergency fund if they have enacted their own 2 mil levy.