A Montana BLM employee received the Department of the Interior’s Valor Award May 6 for his role in rescuing a family of four from an approaching wildland fire in southern Utah two years ago.
George Johnson Jr., fuels program manager for the Dillon Field Office, accepted his award from Interior Secretary Salazar during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The award honors employees of the DOI and its agencies as well as private citizens who have performed acts of heroism in emergencies or demonstrated longstanding excellence in serving Interior’s mission.
On July 7, 2007, Johnson was traveling south to assist in the management of a fire near Cedar City, Utah, when he realized the smoke he had been seeing for quite some time and was driving into was not drift smoke, but was coming from a fire adjacent to Interstate 15.
The wind suddenly changed direction and Johnson knew it would be dangerous to travel further into the smoke and the oncoming fire front, so he safely crossed the interstate median. He was driving north toward Fillmore, Utah, when he encountered a two-vehicle accident. The driver had also been trying to cross the median to avoid the oncoming smoke and fire but became stuck and was then hit by another vehicle.
Johnson saw that the people involved in the accident were injured and in need of medical assistance. At the same time, he was aware that the accident location was about to be overcome by the approaching fire and there wouldn’t be time for emergency personnel to reach them before the fire did. He knew if he stopped, he would possibly be compromising his own safe retreat from the rapidly-advancing fire. Calling upon his 35 years of fire experience, he stopped and put the four travelers into the back of his pickup. When Johnson was out of immediate danger from the wildfire he pulled over, assessed their injuries, and moved them into the cab of his vehicle.
On his way to Fillmore, Johnson contacted the local 911 center and informed the Fillmore hospital he was inbound with the crash victims who required medical assistance. As he traveled north, Johnson said it wasn’t unusual to see the fire lapping at the highway’s edge and into the median as well.
He safely delivered the injured to the hospital, informed the 911 center that the occupants of the wrecked vehicle were at the Fillmore hospital, and continued his journey to Cedar City by an alternate route.
Johnson later learned that the fire he had encountered was the Milford Flats Fire which eventually burned a total of 363,000 acres and would go on record as the largest fire in Utah history.
Johnson has worked for the BLM in Dillon since 2007, and was previously employed by the U.S. Forest Service since 1974 in several fire management positions.