Reporter's Notebook

The Front Lines of Fire

Giving thanks to our wildland firefighters, who forsake relaxing summers for a punishing task of unquantifiable importance

By the time the smoke clears and gives way to the embers of autumn, we’ll once again take stock of wildfire season’s damage. We’ll reflect. But until then, we’ll react: multi-agency crews battling blazes, visitors abiding by campfire and travel restrictions, residents modifying daily behaviors and summer schedules.

Nearly every conversation now includes a mention of smoke, a reminder that wildfires are not so much an unexpected event as an inevitability of existence in the West, and they seep into the most quotidian aspects of our lives. Yet, their omnipresence doesn’t diminish their capacity to inspire awe and fear each time they arrive. At their worst, they are purveyors of chaos and tragedy.

As of this writing, two firefighters have perished on the job this summer in Montana, both killed by fallen trees. Brent Witham, 29, of Mentone, California died on Aug. 2 at the Lolo Peak fire. Trenton Johnson, 19, of Missoula died on July 19 during an incident near Seeley Lake.

The federal government lists four categories of wildland firefighting positions: permanent full-time, permanent part-time, permanent career-seasonal, temporary seasonal. There are also private and state jobs. Those on the front lines include college students earning summer money, Montana fathers and mothers embracing grueling work to guard their homeland, outdoors enthusiasts seeking high-stakes adventure with purpose. They’re our neighbors and friends.

Hailing from disparate backgrounds, they band together in confronting Mother Nature’s violence in order to keep the rest of us safe and protect what we cherish. Amid clouds of smoke, political affiliations, social distinctions and genders disappear in the united pursuit of a critical cause. The outpouring of support following the recent deaths was poignant, illustrating how powerfully such losses ripple through the firefighting community and beyond.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 1,114 wildland firefighter deaths since 1910, not counting this year, and untold injuries. The deadliest season was 1910, when blazes ravaged Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing 84 firefighters. Next on the list are 1994, with 35 deaths, and 2013, with 34.

Causes of death include heat stroke, heart attacks, vehicle and aircraft accidents, heavy equipment incidents, falling and flying debris and other natural hazards, drowning, electrocution, asphyxiation, and “burnover,” the term for when the flames themselves overtake firefighters.

The dangers are clear, yet they don’t dissuade the thousands of firefighters who respond annually to their profession’s rising demand, as wildfire seasons are growing longer and stronger. The number of blazes larger than 1,000 acres has doubled in the West since the 1970s. The U.S. Forest Service devoted 16 percent of its budget to wildfires in 1995. That figure rose to 52 percent in 2015 and is expected to reach 67 percent by 2025, according to an agency report. This “unsustainable” trend sucks huge sums of money from other programs. Wildfire staffing has skyrocketed by 114 percent since 1998, while other Forest Service jobs have dwindled by 39 percent.

Indeed, more than ever, we need the brave men and women who forsake relaxing summers for a punishing task of unquantifiable importance. When the sky darkens with haze, and most of us ogle from a distance, they head toward that gray horizon, quite literally into the unknown. A thank you is a small gesture for such a monumental undertaking, but it’s important. If you know any of them, don’t forget to say it.