- Associated Press - Thursday, July 20, 2017

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - A 19-year-old firefighter died after being struck by a falling tree while responding to a small blaze in western Montana, officials said Thursday.

Trenton Johnson, a Missoula resident, was a member of a 20-person attack crew for a Merlin, Oregon-based private firefighting contractor called Grayback Forestry Inc., Grayback and Missoula County Sheriff’s Office officials said.

Johnson and nine other members of his crew were called in Wednesday afternoon to help U.S. Forest Service firefighters responding to a lightning-caused fire burning about a half-acre along a ridge near Florence Lake in Lolo National Forest, northeast of Seeley Lake.

They had just arrived when the top of a tree split off and fell toward four firefighters, striking Johnson, Grayback President Mike Wheelock said in a news conference.

“They just heard a crack and that was it,” Wheelock said. “Three of them were able to get out of the way and Trenton did not.”

Johnson was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Missoula, where he was pronounced dead, said Missoula County sheriff’s spokeswoman Brenda Bassett.

The rest of the Grayback crew was pulled from the fire, Lolo National Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig said.

Johnson graduated from Hellgate High School in Missoula, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and a captain of the lacrosse team that won the state championship all four years he played.

“He was my favorite player that I ever coached,” former Hellgate lacrosse coach Kevin Flynn told the Missoulian. “He turned into a great player, a great teammate and a captain for us. He was well-liked by everybody.”

Johnson was attending Montana State University with several of his high school teammates, Flynn said.

Johnson was new to firefighting, and the Montana fire was only his second, the Missoulian reported.

Grayback spokeswoman Kelli Matthews said Johnson had completed all of his training, which included 40 hours of classroom time, up to six hours of field training and a physical fitness test.

At least a dozen large fires have ignited across Montana amid a heat wave that has dried out timber and grasslands. National Weather Service officials said gusting wind and low humidity will mean critical fire conditions are likely to continue through Friday evening.

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