MISSOULA – This year’s fire season has cost Montana more than just money, air quality, homes and over a million acres of land.
Two firefighters paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. One working on just the second wildfire of his career, the other an elite, experienced Hotshot with a family legacy of firefighting.
Both died in Montana, killed by falling trees while fighting fires.
19-year-old Trenton Johnson had recently graduated from Hellgate High School in Missoula where he was a member of the state champion Lacross team. He enrolled as MSU where he was going to be an engineer. Trenton was quirky and smart.
Johnson was killed on July 19 after he was hit by a falling tree while working on a fire near Seeley Lake.
“He had an awesome sense of humor. Witty,” said Trenton’s sister DJ Johnson. “He’d be three steps ahead of the conversation and he’s come up with just snappy, witty statements.”
Trenton followed in his big sister’s footsteps to become a summer wildland firefighter. He was excited when he got that first call to fight a fire in Utah.
DJ said “He liked to work hard and he liked to be outdoors, so it was a really good fit for him and he loved it,” DJ says. “He was on the Brianhead Fire for two weeks in Utah and he’s call me–every single day–and let me know how he was doing and that he was doing. He absolutely loved working hard.”
He was assigned to a fire burning near Seeley Lake, his second fire. The lightning-caused fire would eventually become part of the Rice Ridge Fire. But a tree fell on him after he got there. He died at the hospital.
“The wording I heard was that it was like a lightning bolt. They just heard a crack and that was it,” said Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock. “Three of them were able to get out of the way and Trenton did not.”
Two weeks later, it happened again. 29-year-old Brent Witham of Mentone, Calif.was killed on Aug. 2 in the early days of the Lolo Peak Fire. A tree fell and hit him while working on a fire line in the McLean Creek area.
Brent was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshots stationed in San Bernadino, Calif.
“It’s very emotional to see a fallen fire brother come out of the plane and I feel pain as it was my own brother,” said Carmen Marquez.
Governor Steve Bullock ordered flags in Montana flown half-staff in honor of Trenton, Brent and all other wildland firefighters lost in the line of duty. Montana’s congressional leaders praised their bravery saying Trenton and Brent’s sacrifice won’t be forgotten.
“Why did this happen again especially so local and so close to all of us? It’s just been a rough summer for firefighters all around,” DJ said.
“We just ask that you keep the family in your prayers and the fellow workers and all the firefighters that are out there right now on the line,” Wheelock said.
A firefighter memorial in Laurel was recently completed to honor all firefighters who’ve died in Montana.
— Join KTVH this weekend for a special report looking back to Montana’s Wildfire Season. We’ll take a look at the fire headlines across the state and tell you how you can help your communities financially impacted by these devastating fires.
“Montana Wildfire Relief” special is this Saturday at 6 p.m. on KTVH.