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.
“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, began his firefighting career first as a member of the Tahquitz Hand Crew in 2011; then, as a firefighter on Keenwild 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 Friday to help plan every aspect of his memorial ceremony and the associated activities.
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, read 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 Gov. 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 flags 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.
Witham’s memorial service planned
Brent Witham was honored Monday with a processional escort to the Montecito Memorial Park and Mortuary in Colton. An Honor Watch will be in place with him until interment. The procession route moved from the air tanker base in San Bernardino, along 3rd Street, south along Tippecanoe in front of the Forest Service Headquarters, west on Orange Show and south on Waterman to the Montecito Memorial Park and Mortuary at 3520 E. Washington St., Colton.
The Lolo National Forest live streamed a processional and escort in Montana as Witham was moved to the plane that brought him home. Watch at https://www.facebook.com/lolonationalforest/.
The memorial service itself has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, at the National Orange Show, Orange Pavilion, Arrowhead entrance, San Bernardino. Anyone who would like to attend is welcome. Doors will be open at about 9 a.m.
A blog has been established to help the public, media and agency personnel find detailed information about the memorial service. As information like parking, seating, times, agency attire, etc. becomes available, it will be posted immediately on the blog. Check back frequently www.withammemorialceremony.blogspot.com.
Condolences for the family can be mailed to the San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor’s Office, 602 South Tippecanoe, San Bernardino, CA 92408. Emails can be sent to email@example.com.
Put “Condolences” in the subject line. All correspondence will be given to Brent’s family. For those who would like to remember Brent with a donation, a Memorial Fund is being set up after the weekend. Updates will be posted on the blog.
● A check should be made out to Mark Witham
● In the memo section of the check, please write: “In Trust For the Brent Witham Trust Fund”
● Mail the check (no cash please) to: Brent Witham Memorial Fund, ℅ Chief Costello, 11629 Grove Drive, Yucaipa, CA 92399