The Lolo Peak Fire crosses into the Fall Creek drainage

Embers from the Lolo Peak Fire blew across the Falls Creek drainage on Monday, and blew up into this plume within 30 minutes. 

For the second time in two weeks, western Montana wildland firefighters returned to work on Thursday knowing one of their own died in action.

The Hotshot firefighter killed in a tree-felling accident on the Lolo Peak fire Wednesday was 29-year-old Brent M. Witham of Mentone, California, according to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.

Witham was given CPR on the scene of the accident and airlifted to a Missoula hospital, but could not be revived. He was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshot crew based in Idyllwild, California, serving with 374 fellow firefighters in the mountains 10 miles southwest of Lolo.

The 6,542-acre, lightning-caused fire continued to burn actively on Thursday after growing about 200 acres overnight. Most of the fire line defense has been arrayed along Lantern Ridge, overlooking the Highway 12 corridor west of Lolo.

Mark Struble, the Lolo Peak fire’s public information officer, said Wednesday’s death is something crews know can happen. The U.S. Forest Service even holds drills to prepare for something like this.

“We call it ‘an incident within an incident,’” Struble said. “You have to refocus after a situation like this. I think we’re taking it easy on people, letting them know if they need more time to handle the stress and debrief, it’s all part of the process when things like this happen.

“But everyone knows this is dangerous work, and even with the right protections and protocols, accidents can happen.”

Struble said Witham’s family in California was making memorial arrangements, and he didn’t know if a service would also take place in Montana. The Vista Grande Hotshot crew has already returned to their base at the San Bernardino National Forest.

“The option was out there to stand down for other crews, but I don’t know if any did,” Struble said. “You want your folks to be able to grieve their way, but the fire keeps burning.”

Hotshot firefighters are among the most highly trained and experienced ground crews in the wildfire force. Working in teams of 20, they exceed the physical fitness and technical skills of most Type I fire crews.

Hotshots are typically qualified to use multiple firefighting tools from hand equipment to chainsaws, pumps, engines and communications gear. They often serve as initial attack forces, hiking into remote fire locations or using helicopters for access.

Witham's death was the second firefighter fatality in two weeks in western Montana. On July 19, 19-year-old Trenton Johnson of Missoula died when he was struck by a tree while preparing to confront a half-acre fire northeast of Seeley Lake.

Falling trees killed 4 percent of the 440 firefighters who died on the job between 1990 and 2014, according to statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center.

"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.

Gov. Steve Bullock memorialized Witham on Thursday, asking the public to keep firefighters in their hearts.

"Lisa and I send our deepest condolences to the friends, family, and colleagues of Brent Witham," Bullock wrote in an email. "Mr. Witham lost his life protecting the people of Montana and we will remember him for his courage and sacrifice.''

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