Elite firefighter killed while battling western Montana blaze

(Reuters) - An elite California firefighter was killed by a falling tree while battling a blaze in western Montana, the second firefighting death in the area over the last two weeks, officials said.

Brent Witham, 29, of Mentone, California, was killed on Wednesday while fighting the so-called Lolo Peak Fire about 30 miles (50 km)south of Missoula in the Lolo National Park. It was sparked by lightning on July 15, the Missoula County sheriff and coroner said.

Witham was given CPR at the scene, but could not be revived, the Missoulian newspaper reported.

“Please keep wildland firefighters on the Lolo Peak fire and firefighters across the nation in your thoughts and prayers,” Leigh Golden, the fire department’s public information officer, said in an emailed statement to the newspaper.

Witham was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshots, an elite firefighting crew, one of 113 20-member specially trained squads in the United States that fight wildfires at close range with hand tools.

Witham’s death comes two weeks after Trenton Johnson, 19, was struck by a tree and killed while fighting the Florence Fire, a blaze in the Lolo National Forest, on July 19.

An elite squad of 19 Arizona firemen were killed in Arizona in 2014, the worst U.S. wildland firefighting tragedy in 80 years.

Witham was one of about 350 firefighters battling the Lolo Peak Fire that has burned 6,500 acres (2,600 hectares) of high elevation timber 10 miles (26 km) southwest of Lolo, forcing some evacuations.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Clelia Oziel