RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal firefighter from Vermont who was killed by a falling tree while battling a wildfire near the Nevada-Utah line had a passion for people and the outdoors, and he had hoped to become a paramedic, his family said Monday.
An investigative team led by the U.S. Forest Service has taken over the probe into the death of Justin Beebe, 26, who was killed Saturday fighting the blaze at Great Basin National Park, about 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas, said Adrienne Freeman, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
"As we look into the accident, we want to know what — if anything — we can learn from this moving forward," Freeman told The Associated Press from the command post in Ely on Monday. "Firefighting is inherently dangerous and, certainly, accidents with snags (standing dead trees) are unfortunately a part of that dangerous profession."
Beebe of Bellows Falls, Vermont, was in his first year as a member of the Lolo Hotshots based in Missoula, Montana, one of the Forest Service's elite crews who man the front lines of the most dangerous wildland blazes across the West.
His parents, Sheldon and Betsy Beebe, said their son had worked as a logger in New England and on his family's farm in Westminster, Vermont, where they produced maple syrup. They describe him as a charismatic, rugged Vermonter who had a special way with children and devoted his life to the "woods and people."
"He loved being out of doors. That was what called him," they said in a statement released by a family friend. They said he had long wanted to become a Hotshot firefighter and was planning to become an emergency medical technician to help others.
Beebe was among 434 crew members fighting the lightning-sparked fire on the edge of the national park about 5 miles west of Baker, Nevada when he was struck and killed by the tree on Saturday.
Equipped with chain saws and pick axes, Hotshot crews fell trees, clear fire lines and sometimes light back fires to keep flames from progressing, Freeman said.
"They really are the elite firefighters that are on the front lines on the ground," she said. "They are highly skilled."
No other details about the accident were immediately available. More than 500 firefighters continued to attack the blaze, which was estimated to be 76 percent contained on Monday. It has burned more than 7 square miles since lightning started it on Aug. 8.
"This loss of life is tragic and heartbreaking," said Great Basin National Park Superintendent Steve Mietz, who asked the public to keep Beebe's family and co-workers in their thoughts and prayers. The park is surrounded by mountain peaks taller than 10,000 feet and home to the rare bristlecone pine tree, some of which are thousands of years old.
Tim Garcia, Forest Service supervisor of the Lolo National Forest, said in a statement from Montana on Monday Beebe was "a fine person and tremendous employee and his loss is deeply felt."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, echoed those sentiments. "As we mourn the loss of a member of our USDA family, we are grateful for Justin's brave service and the service of all of our U.S. Forest Service employees working to protect our nation," he said.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester said he and his wife, Sharla, send their deepest condolences to the Beebe family and "prayers of safety to those who are bravely fighting wildfires across our nation."
"Our wildland crews are the best of the best, and they courageously suit up and put their lives on the line for our families and communities," he said.
An avid hunter, fisherman and snowboarder, Beebe graduated in 2008 from Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, where he was captain of the soccer team and also starred in hockey and baseball, his family said. They said he was planning to marry his girlfriend, Jennifer Zaso.
Beebe had dyslexia, and his family said they were considering honoring his memory by developing a program that can help bring dyslexic children into the woods. Plans for a memorial service or services were pending, the family said.
AP correspondent Wilson Ring contributed to this report from Montpelier, Vermont.