Fallen Missoula firefighter remembered one year after death at Seeley Lake fire

From the lookout, DJ Johnson heard the incident commander’s voice come over the radio, requesting a Life Flight helicopter to evacuate a fallen firefighter.

“Missoula Dispatch, clear the air for medical emergency.” His voice, normally so calm and collected, was panicked and shaky. She knew, somehow, the call was about her brother, Trenton.

Trenton Johnson, 19, was a firefighter fresh out of training, hired by Grayback Forestry Inc. earlier that summer.

Along with nine other firefighters on the Grayback crew, he hiked into the two-acre fire, meeting a crew from the Seeley Lake Ranger District to help finish clearing a line that would prevent the fire from reaching unburned fuel.

After about 30 minutes of briefing by U.S. Forest Service personnel, a snag that had been burning overnight fell into a group of four firefighters. It sounded like a crack of lightning.

Trenton was the only one hit. He died during evacuation to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula on July 19, 2017.

The fire started with a lightning strike on Tuesday, July 18, 2017.

DJ, a firefighter for the Seeley Lake Ranger District, was told to return home that night for her day off on Wednesday.

She knew an approaching storm would hit the district, fanning a fire that would be called in on Wednesday morning, growing to cover more acres throughout the day.

It was a fire that could be handled initially by an Incident Commander Type 5, a qualification for squad bosses who can oversee smaller, less complex fires.

From there, a squad boss directs five or six firefighters, selecting lookouts, setting up communications, planning escape routes and flagging environmental hazards.

It later turned into a Type 4 fire, requiring an incident commander with more experience, balancing an array of resources from helicopters to engines to crews.

DJ, 26, was one of the many squad bosses, having four wildland firefighting seasons behind her. She was prepared for what would be known as the Florence fire, which would be swallowed by the Rice Ridge fire later that summer, burning over 100,000 acres by the beginning of September.

But she wouldn’t go back to firefighting for the rest of the season, choosing to stay home and try to ease her parents’ minds and broken hearts.

DJ and her friend and fellow wildland firefighter, Mary Yoder, were on their way to the ranger station on Wednesday, having been called in after the lightning strike the night before.

As they traveled down Highway 83 toward Seeley Lake, a man waved at them from the side of the road. He stumbled across the grass, wearing a white tank top and jean shorts.

DJ decided to pull over, having had training as an EMT, and found out the man was walking back to his friends. It was a three-minute stop, one that DJ felt was necessary.

She looks back on it now, wondering what made her pull over and how that was the first time her EMT senses kicked in outside of firefighting.

“I can’t say if those three minutes that we spent pulling over changed the course of the day. I don’t know, but it was a weird thing I look back on,” DJ said.

After traveling through the two-mile stretch of small town grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations, the women arrived at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, located between a dense expanse of evergreen trees and the lake.

At the station, DJ and Yoder were tasked to be on reserve in case another fire started, while a few members of the Seeley crew and a squad from Grayback Forestry were called in to manage the fire.

After picking up a hose that was left at a smaller fire nearby, DJ received a text from Trenton, telling her his crew was called to the fire and were headed to Seeley Lake. She remembers telling him that with a 10-person crew, they were going to get the fire out in no time.

***

Trenton and DJ Johnson when he was captain of the Hellgate High lacrosse team.

Trenton was a Montana State University student studying engineering and an avid lacrosse player, the captain of his team at Hellgate High School in Missoula. He had short blond hair and blue eyes.

He could tell any joke with a straight face, convincing everyone in his school that he was adopted from Ukraine, which began as a family joke. DJ and her friends started calling him Uey when he was about 11 years old; writing it on signs for sporting events and referencing it on Facebook posts. He was calm and caring, making the best out of difficult situations. DJ admired her brother’s wisdom.

“As a 26-year-old, I would look to my 19-year-old brother for advice,” DJ said.

When DJ looks back, she’s upset she wasn’t on that fire. She felt, with a guilty heart, if she hadn’t been on the sidelines, her brother’s crew wouldn’t have been called.

She remembered attending a funeral in 2016 for Justin Beebe, a Lolo Hotshot who died after being hit by a falling snag on the Strawberry fire in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

She couldn’t imagine what it would be like having a loved one die in a fire, but ended up knowing exactly how that feels. She had encouraged Trenton to start training, telling him about the summer wages and the unbreakable bond among firefighters.

“He had followed in my footsteps,” she said.

***

DJ talked to Trenton for 20 minutes in the ranger station’s parking lot before he headed out to the blaze. He was waiting for his crew boss to be briefed on basic information regarding the Florence fire.

Trenton Johnson was particularly fond of this photo from his brief time as a firefighter.

He was excited to go into his second fire. The first was the Brian Head fire in Utah, which burned more than 40,000 acres at the beginning of the summer.

This two-acre fire wasn’t too far from the station, but it wasn’t big enough to reveal large flames or boiling clouds of smoke. Its growth had stopped, and the Grayback crew was tasked to assist other Seeley Lake District firefighters in finishing the fireline.

Trenton knew a lot of people at the Seeley Lake ranger station, having applied earlier in the year to fight fires with DJ. Instead, he was hired by Grayback.

As Trenton and nine other Grayback firefighters ventured out, DJ and Yoder climbed up to the Silver Gate Lookout, a large hill used by the crew to oversee the area, waiting for orders. They sat in the dirt, wearing their dark green and bright yellow combination Nomex suits. DJ and Yoder watched as small clouds of smoke rose from the trees that encased Trenton and the others.

They talked about a new movie trailer for “Only the Brave,” about the Granite Mountain Hotshots fighting a large wildland fire in Yarnell, Arizona. They described it as dramatic, and a potentially exaggerated representation of what wildland firefighting is like.

They discussed how the public would have a false expectation of firefighters going into a flaming forest and doing reckless and risky behaviors in order to save homes and property.

“The trailer’s kind of silly. For us, at that point, firefighting’s a job and this made it a very Hollywood version of us doing a job. Which is also very ironic because my life turned very dramatic after that day,” DJ said.

Then the panicked voice came over her radio, requesting a helicopter for immediate evacuation. They stayed for a while longer, hoping more details would come over the radio. They lost service on their way to the station, and once they got to the pavement, the radio went silent.

She ran into the station where her fire management officer asked her to sit down. She could only react, having Yoder drive 40 minutes at 90 mph to Missoula while DJ made calls.

“During the car ride home, I was pissed and very angry. I didn’t know that Trenton had died yet,” DJ said. “So in my head, I’m thinking, ‘He’s in the hospital. Everything’s going to be okay.’ I was oddly put together.”

When she got to the hospital, her mother, Dawn Johnson, was already there. During the drive over, she called her father, Marty Johnson, who lived in Yaak. He was already making the four-hour trip to Missoula.

She would later find out from a good friend, who was the EMT taking care of Trenton on the ground, that Trenton was calm, the look in his eyes soothing the frantic crews.

In Trenton’s room at St. Patrick Hospital, he lay in perfect condition. Having medical training, DJ looked for evidence of his death. A scrape, a bruise, a laceration. There wasn’t one. His firefighting hard hat revealed a large mark from where the tree hit him, but there was no sign of a gash on his head. She believes he died from the impact of the tree on his head and neck. She never got an official autopsy report.

“It’s another one of those things. This must’ve happened for a reason, because he’s still pristine. He’s still beautiful,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

***

In the days following, DJ and Marty had the same approach to Trenton’s death. They made calls to arrange the donation of Trenton’s organs and tissues and collaborated with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in planning his memorial. When they look back, they understand that Trenton was in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong day. No one was to blame.

“I haven’t really broken down and done my mourning yet,” Marty said. “My daughter and I are kind of the same that way. When he died, we took a business-like attitude toward it.”

More people from around the Missoula community started to reach out with support. While getting a coffee in a local Dillards, the barista recognized Marty as Trenton’s dad, buying him a coffee and offering her condolences. That same day, Gov. Steve Bullock called him on the phone.

Grayback Forestry Inc. supported the family as well and honored Trenton for his work. Burk Minor, director of outreach for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, helped provide funding for Trenton’s memorial, and checked in with Marty and DJ during the difficult holiday season.

A Missoula radio stationed played a few of Trenton’s favorite songs for his birthday that September, songs that DJ loved as well: “Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, “Closer to the Heart” by Rush, and “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” by Flogging Molly.

“It was nice to know people were recognizing my son and the tragedy,” Marty said.

***

Trenton’s memorial was held at Fort Missoula Regional Park on July 23, 2017. The sky was clear and blue. DJ, Marty and other family members and friends gathered alongside firefighters from crews across the Northwest.

Trenton Johnson

Men and women from the Rocky Mountain Fire Company, the Missoula Fire Department, the Seeley Lake Fire Crew, the U.S. Forest Service and others shared stories about Trenton and their own service in the field.

A fire truck, with its extension ladder raised in the air, hung a giant American flag honoring Trenton. A bright orange lacrosse stick leaned up against a display with certificates from the Montana Lacrosse Association and from the Hellgate High School Chapter National Honor Society.

Childhood photographs and memorial pamphlets covered the tables. A small bronze statue of a firefighter donated by the foundation sat among the memories, with a gold plaque at the base:

Trenton M. Johnson: In Honor of Your Service to Wildland Firefighting.

****

This week, the Lolo National Forest family remembered Trenton and two other firefighters who died on the forest in recent years during a remembrance week.

They sold memorial T-shirts as a fundraiser for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and shared stories of their lost friends and coworkers.

“They remain in our hearts and serve as reminders to us all to look out for each other and honor their memories in all that we do,” came the message in a circular sent to Lolo Forest employees.

The memorial T-shirt included drawings of tree seeds from the maple, ponderosa pine and giant sequoia, honoring Justin Beebe, Trenton Johnson and Brent Witham with the dominant forest species where each firefighter lived and worked.

The notion, organizers said, was to represent “the themes of renewal, growth and connectedness that can help us to find goodness through times of loss.”