News & Features

Firefighter Killed by Falling Tree Snag in Western Montana

Trenton Johnson was a member of a 20-person Type II initial attack firefighting crew

Updated: July 20, 1:30 p.m.

A 19-year-old Missoula man was killed July 19 by a falling tree snag while fighting a wildfire north of Seeley Lake.

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office identified the victim as Trenton M. Johnson.

Johnson was a member of a 20-person Type II initial attack firefighting crew with Grayback Forestry, an Oregon-based private contract company that supplies resources for fire incidents.

Johnson sustained injuries from a tree snag falling on him while fighting the Florence Fire on the Seeley Lake Ranger District at around 5 p.m., according to the sheriff’s office. No other injuries were reported.

Johnson was flown to Missoula but was later pronounced dead at St. Patrick’s Hospital.

Johnson, a graduate of Missoula Hellgate High School and a sophomore at Montana State University, was in his first season as a wildland firefighter and on his second assignment this summer. At roughly 10:30 a.m., Wednesday, the crew was dispatched to a small lightning fire reported north of Seeley Lake.

The crew was split into two groups of 10 to attack two different fires, according to Grayback Forestry spokesperson Kelli Matthews. Upon arrival, the groups tied in with an existing crew to review strategy for engaging the fire. The wildland fire procedure known as LCES — lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety — were followed, according to Matthews.

As the crew was getting lined out, the top of a burning tree broke and fell towards the crew boss and three other firefighters. Johnson was struck. He was taken to the nearest heliport approximately a half-mile from the incident.

Snags, or dead, burned trees that frequently break from the top, are among the worst hazards on wildfire incidents. Since 2001, 15 firefighters have died from snags or hazard trees in the U.S.

“This is a tragic day for Missoula and all of Montana as we mourn the loss of firefighter Trenton Johnson,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester said in a statement. “His bravery and sacrifice will not be forgotten. This is a sobering reminder that every day firefighters put their lives on the line to protect ours. Sharla and I send our thoughts to Mr. Johnson’s family and friends, and we pray for comfort and healing during this difficult time.”

Gov. Steve Bullock also issued a statement:

“Firefighters dedicate their lives each day to ensure the safety of our communities. Lisa and I send our deepest condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of firefighter Trenton Johnson. He will forever be remembered as a brave man who exemplifies the courage and selflessness of all our first responders.”

The sheriff’s office is investigating the incident.