Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wildfire in the rural West, from Montana to California

A few weeks ago I heard a short news story on NPR on a Sunday evening about the residents of  Missoula, Montana lining up along the roads by which the vehicle carrying the body of a fallen firefighter would travel.  The body of Brent Witham, who had died when a falling tree hit him as he fought the Lolo Peak fire, was being returned to his southern home, via air transport from Missoula.  The corresponding story from The Missoulian newspaper reads in part:
The body of California Hotshot Brent Witham will be transported to the Missoula Airport Monday morning in a procession that begins at 9 a.m. in Missoula.

The route will start at Garden City Funeral Home, 1705 West Broadway St., and head west along Broadway to the Aerial Fire Depot.

The Forest Service organizers are asking people to line Broadway between the funeral home and the Reserve Street overpass by 8:30 a.m. For safety reasons, the public is asked not to line or park on Broadway west of the overpass.
I thought when I heard the NPR story:  what a "rural thing to do."  Maybe, in particular, it is a western rural thing to do--honoring a fallen firefighter who was doing a very risky job to protect people he didn't even know.  Montanans understand that risk and sacrifice, as do so many other rural folks.

Witham was with the Vista Grande Hotshot crew based in Riverside County, California, part of the San Jacinto Ranger District of the San Bernardino National Forest.  When his body returned to California, he was not similarly honored by the people in his community.  Instead, fire vehicles driven by firefighting professionals joined a vehicular procession to remember and honor him.

I wonder what to make of this difference between Montana (where Missoula is actually "urban") and California, especially given the rural base of the Vista Grande Hotshots, near Idyllwild.  

I'm in Montana now, the southwestern part, en route to Yellowstone National Park.  A cover story in  yesterday's Bozeman Daily Chronicle was about a recent small fire north of Three Forks, a bit west of Bozeman.   Two youth were being charged with setting the fire, which burned about 250 acres.  A heading on the Chronicle's website is "Fire Line," and another story there is "Western Montana Full of Fire Activity."  Folks in the lovely shops on Main Street yesterday mentioned that the air in Bozeman had only just cleared, thanks to rain, from the smoke of a nearby fire.  

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