Milo Holston, left, and Tom Zbyszewski, both Liberty Bell High School graduates, are in their first season of firefighting. Photo by Ann McCreary

Milo Holston, left, and Tom Zbyszewski, both Liberty Bell High School graduates, are in their first season of firefighting. Photo by Ann McCreary

Rookie firefighters protect homes of people they know

By Ann McCreary

“It was a huge surprise” to find himself working to protect the homes of friends and high school classmates, says rookie firefighter Milo Holston.

“I expected to spend most of my time out of the valley or out of the state,” said Holston, a Winthrop resident who graduated this year from Liberty Bell High School.

Holston is working with a U.S. Forest Service hand crew this summer before attending Western Washington University. His first firefighting season has him working on the largest fire in Washington history, which is taking place in his back yard.

“I didn’t realize how big a deal this would be,” Holston said after two weeks of fighting the Carlton Complex Fire. “When people started losing houses — people you know — it’s more pressure.”

When fire was threatening the Balky Hill and Davis Lake areas two weeks ago, Holston found himself working to build fire lines around homes of friends. And he knows friends who lost their homes.

“People losing homes is pretty devastating,” he said.

Tom Zbyszewski, a 2013 Liberty Bell graduate, is also fighting fires for the first time this summer as part of a five-person Forest Service engine crew.

Holston and Zbyszewksi said they have never felt personally in danger while battling the fast-moving Carlton Complex fires. They said their supervisors and crew members follow safety protocols that call for identifying escape routes and safety zones wherever they are working.

“They really keep us safe. There’s no one going to the head of the fire. That would be way too dangerous,” Zbyszewski said.

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Emotional experience

But both said fighting fire in their community has been tough emotionally.

“For local firefighters there’s a lot of stress involved worrying about whether their house was going to burn down while they were away, and having friends whose houses are in danger,” Zbyszewski said.

“That puts another level of strain on local firefighters. We have to put that out of our minds so we can focus on the fire,” he said.

Zbyszewski’s engine crew was working on Balky Hill as the fire made its run toward the town of Twisp on July 18.

“We were up Balky Hill when the fire was moving down toward us. We saw a house get engulfed. That was pretty intense,” Zbyszewski said.

Holston’s hand crew was working hard to build a line to halt the advance of the fire on Balky Hill.

“We were digging a line up the hill to the top of the cliffs that looked out over Twisp. When we got to the top we could look out and saw crews down below, tying lines into the cliffs. We could see the cumulative effect,” Holston said.

“You sometimes feel so separated from everyone … but together it’s a huge success,” he said.

The first-year firefighters have been working 15-hour days in temperatures consistently around 100 degrees.

“There have been some tough days for sure. Especially digging hot line … when the fire is burning close to you and it’s hot out already. Sometimes it’s like up in your face,” Holston said.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience, and a little bit scary,” Holston said. “It will definitely be something I take into future years.”

“There’s going to be work on this fire until it snows,” Zbyszewski said. “And years after that for reclamation.”