Two men killed during the devastating fire season of 2017 are being memorialized this week in the Treasure State. 

Brent Witham, 29, and Trenton Johnson, 19, died fighting separate fires during one of Montana's worst wildland fire seasons on record.

This week, Witham's family traveled from California to see a stretch of Highway 12, from mile markers 20 to 32, dedicated to his name on Thursday. Few understood his sacrifice, said Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat whose district includes Lolo and Missoula, more than Witham's family, whose members comprise law enforcement and military veterans. 

Witham was a member of the Vista Grande Interagency Hotshot Crew, a California outfit dispatched to the Lolo Peak Fire in 2017.

"No greater service does any man or woman give than to lay down their life for their country," Sands said to the gathering in Lolo. "It's our tradition in Montana to honor the lives of those we have lost to this dangerous work by dedicating a section of Montana highway in their name, so that all who look at a Montana highway map or drive this section of highway will be reminded of the high price that was paid for this public service."

On Friday, officials will dedicate a strip of Highway 83 to Johnson, a Hellgate High School graduate and Grayback Forestry firefighter when he was killed fighting the Florence fire near Seeley Lake on July 19, 2017.

The stretch of road, from mile markers 14 and 22, is not far from where Johnson died, said Kristen Baker-Dickinson, Clearwater Unit manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

"I think it helps provide more public exposure so that when individuals are driving through such a pretty part of our state they recognize that in order to protect that beauty, wildlife and livelihood, we lost a young man," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "Firefighters as a general whole are a very tight-knit group and we care very much about one another, and one another's friends and family. It always hits a chord when we suffer a loss in that family."

The Missoula County Board of Commissioners this week signed the official proclamation assigning July 18, 2019, Brent Witham Day in Missoula County. A second proclamation signed by the commissioners dedicates July 19, 2019 — the anniversary of the day Johnson died — as Trenton Johnson Day. 

Johnson, a born-and-raised Missoulian, is noted in the proclamation for his positive attitude, sense of humor, work ethic and commitment to friends, family and colleagues on the fire crew. 

Baker-Dickinson said Thursday that's the tone his family wanted for the events honoring their son.

"What struck a chord with me is that a lot of the firefighters knew him personally," she said. "Certainly it always hits home when you recognize all the more closely that it could be someone you know."

That year's torching across Montana was memorable. Three-thousand people were evacuated from their Lolo homes, while the entire Seeley Lake community was nearly driven from their town by multiple fires raging on the horizon. Johnson and Witham died within two weeks of each other; Johnson, a rookie, was killed by a falling tree and Witham, an experienced firefighter on a hotshot crew, died in a tree-felling accident. 

Baker-Dickinson characterized 2017 as "certainly a difficult year in terms of the number of fires and length of the season. But the deaths of two firefighters was the most significant."

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which will be on hand for Friday's ceremony on Highway 83, provides assistance to families of fallen firefighters and firefighters injured in duty. More information on the nonprofit can be found at wffoundation.org.

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