Westminster 'Hotshot' dies fighting fire in Nevada

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GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK, NEV. — Justin Beebe loved nature, especially the woods.

He was also a hard worker who always put others before himself, his lifelong friend Colin James, of Bellows Falls, said.

So it seemed only natural that Beebe combined these elements and joined the Lolo Hotshots crew to fight wildland fires.

"This was the job of his dreams," James said.

The U.S. Forest Service firefighter died around 4 p.m. Saturday after a dead tree fell on him as he was fighting the Strawberry Fire at Great Basin National Park, about 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The 26-year-old was in his first year as a member of the Lolo Hotshots based in Missoula, Montana. He was working on a fire sparked by lightning on Aug. 8. There are 434 people fighting the Strawberry Fire, which is now 59 percent contained.

Beebe succumbed to injuries after being struck by a snag during firefighting efforts, said Julie Thomas, spokeswoman for the Great Basin Incident Management Team 7, which is managing the fire with the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. A snag is a standing dead tree or part of a dead tree left after a forest fire.

The Forest Service is investigating the line-of-duty death, Thomas said.

"This loss of life is tragic and heartbreaking," Park Superintendent Steve Mietz said in a statement. "Please keep the family and Forest Service employees in your thoughts and prayers during this time."

"Justin devoted his life to woods and people, and that was his focus," Beebe's family said, through family friend John Gregg. "He loved being out of doors. That was what called him."

Beebe was born on Feb. 2, 1990, in Springfield, Vt., and grew up in Westminster. He graduated from Bellows Falls Union High School in 2008 and did a post-graduate year at Vermont Academy, in Saxtons River.

"He had long wanted to become a Hotshot firefighter, and he was also planning to become an EMT to help people," wrote Gregg in an email to the media. "He was a charismatic, rugged Vermonter who kids really responded to."

James said he and other friends of Beebe gathered Sunday night to have a few beers in his honor and to remember the man who was the kind of person to help a stranger stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire.

"He loved his family. He and his sister Jess were very close. He loved his dad; he adored his mom," James said. "He's one of the most decent human beings I've ever met in my life."

He said Beebe's spirit will never be forgotten in the "Main Street USA" town of Bellows Falls.

"I'm going to miss him," he said. "I'm going to miss his laugh. He's the brother I never had."

Beebe was an incredible athlete, noted Gregg. In addition to baseball and hockey, he was also captain of the Bellows Falls soccer team and was an avid hunter, fisherman and snowboarder.

Bob Lockerby, who teaches physical education at Bellows Falls Union High School and was Beebe's baseball coach, said Justin was one of the best, if not the best, outfielders he has ever coached.

"He could get the ball anywhere inside the fence and probably outside of the fence if I had let him," said Lockerby.

Beebe's athleticism was just an indication of his love of life, said Lockerby. "He only played the game one way — 110 percent. His motor was always revved and ready to go. He was a coach's dream."

Lockerby noted that though Beebe deserved all the glory he received, whether that was on the diamond or on a hockey rink, he was all about the team. "It wasn't all about himself. He was a team player."

Lockerby was not surprised when he learned his star outfielder joined the Hotshots.

"He lived his young life to the fullest. He embraced challenges and he didn't think there was anything he couldn't do. He proved that to me by making it as a Hotshot."

Beebe was also an amazing role model, said Lockerby. "Not just for kids, but for adults, too."

Glenn Schreiter, of Saxtons River Orchard, agreed that Beebe was an incredible role model. "He gave respect and he commanded that same respect from anybody he came in contact with."

Beebe worked for, or perhaps "with" is a better word, Schreiter for about seven years, starting when he was 17.

Schreiter said Beebe was more like a little brother than an employee. "Justin had a drive like I've never seen. If he put his mind to something, he figured out a way to do it."

Becoming a Hotshot was Beebe's dream, said Schreiter, and they often talked about it while working. In fact, Schreiter served as a reference when Beebe was applying for the job.

"He was a person who was wise beyond his years, but he was also extremely humble. He would give you the shirt off his back."

While the world has lost an amazing man, said Schreiter, "Heaven gained an incredible soul."

Lockerby said his whole family and the community at large is devastated by Beebe's death.

"My son and he played ball and hockey, went to school together. He was close to my daughter. We got to watch them grow up together. It really hits hard."

Right now, said Lockerby, everyone who knows the Beebe family is holding them close in their thoughts. "Justin was well known by many people and not just for his outstanding play. People looked forward to seeing him. He was a strong component of his family and the community."

Wildland Fire Foundation Director Burk Minor said the foundation will help Beebe's family get to Missoula for the memorial service in his honor.

"Plane tickets, lodging, whatever it takes," he said. "The whole community is stricken right now. The Hotshot community is a tight group. The fatality will go through the wildland firefighting community like wildfire."

Tim Garcia, forest supervisor for the Lolo National Forest, sent a statement to employees Sunday. "Every employee is impacted by such a tragic loss," he said. "Some of you knew Justin, others did not. I can tell you he was a fine person and tremendous employee and his loss is deeply felt."

American flags at the visitors centers in Great Basin National Park were flying at half-staff Sunday, and Thomas said a notification to the Forest Service will be sent out Monday morning for all flags, nationwide, to be flown at half-staff.

She added that this is the first Forest Service death this year.

Thomas said a Hotshot crew is an elite group of firefighters composed of 20 professionals. The group's primary purpose is to be an organized, mobile and highly trained wildland fire management force.

Firefighters are facing dangerous conditions and often extremely steep terrain, Thomas said. Temperatures can often intensify, and winds can impact on the fire, she added. "They need to be constantly aware of the changing weather," she said.

Minor said the public sometimes forgets the dangers wildland firefighters face.

"It's seasonal," Minor said. "And everyone is so accustomed to seeking red fire trucks going down the street. But with dry, desert BLM fires, the fire is burning just as fast as the wind is carrying it, putting these guys in harm's way all the time."

Survivors include his parents, Sheldon and Betsy Beebe, of Westminster, and his sister, Jessica. He is also survived by the love of his life, Jennifer Zaso, whom he was planning to marry, noted Gregg.

Beebe grew up with dyslexia, and his family is thinking about some sort of program that can help bring dyslexic kids into the woods to honor his memory. When the family returns from Montana, the family is hoping to hold a service in Vermont.

Contact Natalie Bruzda at nbruzda@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3897. Find @NatalieBruzda on Twitter. Contact Bob Audette at raudette@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 160 or follow him on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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