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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Company President Talks About Montana Firefighter's Death

Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock, right, and employees at a press conference at the company's Missoula facility Thursday
Eric Whitney
Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock, right, and employees at a press conference at the company's Missoula facility Thursday

At a press conference Thursday, Mike Wheelock, the president of the company that employed 19-year-old firefighter Trenton Johnson was visibly shaken while giving details of the accident that killed Johnson on Wednesday.

"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," he said, choking up. 

Johnson was a graduate of Missoula’s Hellgate High School. He played on the lacrosse team that won state championships all four years he was on it. He was in the National Honor Society, and attending Montana State University.

Trenton Johnson
Credit Courtesy Grayback Forestry
Trenton Johnson

Standing in his company’s warehouse across the road from Missoula’s airport, Mike Wheelock said Johnson hadn’t been working for Grayback Forestry for long. Grayback contracts with the federal government to supply wildland firefighting crews.

"This was Trenton’s first year as a firefighter," Wheelock said, "his second tour. He spent a tour down in Utah."

Wheelock says that federal fire managers in Missoula assigned the 20-person crew Johnson was on to respond to a new lightning-caused fire near Seeley Lake about 10:30 am Wednesday. He said they weren’t on the approximately half-acre start long when the incident happened.

"As the crew was getting lined out, a top broke out of a tree, towards a group of four individuals, one was the crew boss, and Trenton M. Johnson was struck by a tree. From what I gather it was a burning tree," Wheelock said. "He was taken to the nearest heli-spot and was medevaced out to St. Patrick’s hospital here in Missoula."

Wheelock says his fellow crew members had to carry Johnson, “some distance” to the helicopter landing area, and the Johnson was alive when he was put on the aircraft. He was later declared dead at the hospital.

Wheelock says that the crew Johnson was on was mostly experienced firefighters, and that they performed standard safety protocols upon arriving at their assignment. Those include establishing look outs, going over communication, identifying escape routes and going over safety procedures.

But, Wheelock says, it can be very hard to assess whether or not a given dead tree, or “snag,” is dangerous.

"You know, each situation’s different. We train our folks snags are – there’s a high incidence of snags coming down and injuring firefighters.  That, transportation and heart attacks are the main things cause fatalities or serious injuries," Wheelock said.

"We just had a meeting with all 80 of our supervisors, and I specifically talked about snags. That we're getting more and more snags out there in the forest, that there's more bettle kill, and you just have to be heads-up all the time," Wheelock said.

"A lot of times you never even seem them. It’s smoky, and you don’t even know they’re there."

Wheelock’s company, Grayback Forestry, has dealt with workplace fatalities before. In 2008 on a fire called the Iron 44, a helicopter carrying its employees crashed, killing all seven and the two pilots. The crash was determined to be the fault of the Carson Helicopters company, and a Carson executive was sentenced to jail time.

Wheelock says all fourteen of Grayback’s 20-person firefighting crews are being given the option to stand down in the wake of Wednesday’s death.

"We’re bringing in a chaplain, who went with us through that Iron 44, and he also did a year and a half with the army, doing critical de-briefings with Iraqi war veterans coming back. He's coming from Southern Oregon, he’ll be here this afternoon," Wheelock said. 

Wheelock says that his company, the U.S. Forest Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are all investigating the incident. He said that plans are in the works for a memorial service.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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