Vista Grande Hotshot dies fighting Montana fire

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A Vista Grande Hotshot died fighting a fire in western Montana, the U.S. forest Service announced Thursday.

Firefighter Brent Witham died Wednesday, Aug. 2, on the Lolo Peak Fire, burning on the Lolo National Forest in Montana, San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron announced with great sadness.

Brent Witham, Vista Grande Hotshot
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

"Witham's death was the result of a 'tree felling' accident that occurred while he was assigned to the Lolo Peak Fire," according to the Missoula County Sheriff's Office press release.

Witham, 29, of Mentone, California, began his firefighting career first as a member of the Tahquitz Hand Crew, in 2011; then as a firefighter on Engine-56, in 2013; and most recently, as a member of the San Bernardino’s Vista Grande Hotshots since 2015.

During fire hiring in the fall of 2015, Witham was selected as an apprentice of what promised to be an outstanding career.

Witham’s family released a statement on Saturday, “We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of care and support that family, friends and community members have expressed regarding Brent’s recent passing. His death was a terrible shock to all of us and we are still navigating through the disbelief.

“It helps to know how many lives Brent touched with his great sense of humor and ability to make others laugh, his way of turning people’s weaknesses into strength, and his overall love for life. Thank you for your condolences and for continuing to respect our privacy as we move through this difficult time.”

Helping the family during this tragedy and painful period are members of the National Incident Management Organization, who arrived Firday to help plan every aspect of his memorial ceremony and the associated activities.

The NIMO Incident Management Teams primarily manage wildfires, but their skill of making order out of chaos can be applied to many situations — in this case, planning a complex event, said the Forest Service release.

The Vista Grande Hotshot crew was flown back to California Thursday morning, Aug. 3, according to Mark Struble, the information officer for the Lolo Peak Fire.

“Our hearts go out to Brent’s family, friends, fellow Vista Grande Hotshots, the Forest Service, and the entire wildland fire community,” Noiron said in the press release announcing the loss. “Brent was a hardworking professional, who was eager to learn and be the best that he could be—he will be missed by all he touched.”

Both Governor Steve Bullock of Montana and Gov. Jerry Brown of California expressed their condolences to Witham’s family, colleagues and friends.

“Anne and I extend our condolences to Firefighter Brent Witham’s family, friends and colleagues in this difficult time. It’s the work of brave firefighters like Brent that keeps our communities safe and we are deeply grateful for his service,” Brown said in a statement Thursday evening. He added that California’s Capitol flgs will be flown at half-staff.

The Lolo Peak Fire began July 15 with a lightning strike.and has burned about 6,875 acres. The Northern Rockies Type 1 Team is currently managing the fire, but will transition to Pacific Northwest Team III, another Type 1 team, Friday evening, according to Struble.

Witham is the second firefighter to die in western Montana this summer. On July 19, a 19-year-old Trenton Johns of Missoula was struck by a tree on the Lolo National Forest near Seeley Lake.. He was a member of a private firefighting contractor.

Further details regarding the cause of death are pending a Forest Service investigation.

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  1. Bob "Spud" Anderson August 7, 2017, 7:21 pm

    My heart goes out to Brent’s family and colleagues. I was on the Vista Grande Hotshots back in the ’70s. After a long shift, we were hiking back by the light of our headlamps when an old oak tree fell on us. We managed to scatter and, miraculously, the only injury sustained was my broken finger. This is such a dangerous business and things can go horribly wrong in just seconds. My experiences in doing this as a young man (I’m now 61) gives me tremendous respect for the risks and sacrifices these young men and women make to keep us safe

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