Copper eagle weathervane part of tribute to fallen firefighters
By Marcy Stamper
On a tranquil knoll with views of three Methow Valley watersheds, the Methow Valley Ranger District has created a site for reflection and contemplation to honor the firefighters who died in the Twisp River Fire.
The living memorial — located next to the ranger district offices in Winthrop — brings together ideas from firefighters, district employees and local metal artist Jessica da Costa, who created a copper eagle weathervane for the site entitled “Winged With Light.”
The ranger district wanted to create a place where people can honor the fallen firefighters — Tom Zbyszewski, Rick Wheeler and Andrew Zajac — and reflect on their lives and contributions, said District Ranger Mike Liu. “We felt this site was ideal because it overlooks the bunkhouse and the engine base where the crew were stationed. It also has a view to the Twisp River drainage and of the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch rivers, a symbol of how lives come together,” said Liu.
The confluence of the rivers is a reminder of how close-knit the families of the firefighters and Forest Service have become through this tragedy, he said.
Matt Ellis, the fire management officer for the district, worked closely with da Costa on the project. A central goal was to devise a way to incorporate melted aluminum that had been recovered from the engine the firefighters were riding in when they became entrapped.
They all chose an eagle because of its rich symbolism. To Ellis, the bird represents strength, heritage and pride. To Liu, seeing an eagle taking flight symbolizes a Phoenix rising from the ashes.
“We can identify personally to the power and freedom in this symbol and, as I see it, the eagle in copper (we are winged with light) honoring our humanness, carrying spirit,” said da Costa in a statement about her artwork.
Ellis found a compelling relic, a small, tear-shaped piece of aluminum, that he encased in a cylinder of resin so that it could be placed inside the eagle. The resin coating will keep the two metals from reacting with each other.
“Matt labored over the capsule and made sure it was done right, to get the tear into the eagle,” said da Costa.
Da Costa works freehand, drawing her designs on a flat sheet of copper and then hammering it to create the three-dimensional form. This eagle is made from about 20 pieces of copper soldered together.
“I felt very honored having them pick me to do this. I felt called to do it. It’s also part of the healing process, to have this reflection site,” said da Costa, who graduated from Liberty Bell High School in 1993 and knew Tom Zbyszewski and his family.
A weathervane is typically erected at the highest point of a dwelling, said da Costa. “It is personal in design and symbol, yet all who choose to look up and see it can read the message,” she wrote. “Historically, the weathervane holds stories, some dating back to ancient times, and provides a glance into the past. … It is a perfect time capsule.”
The ranger district plans to include other elements at the reflection site. In this first phase, the district has erected a boulder and a plaque honoring the firefighters, the weathervane, and planted a flower and vegetable garden. The firefighters’ families planted four trees as a living memorial. They plan to add a covered bench where people can rest and reflect, said Liu.
The second phase of the reflection site will be constructed lower on the hillside. That area will include signs explaining what has been learned from the fire — from the weather, terrain and other conditions. These lessons learned will be drawn from the final incident report that the Forest Service will be releasing in a few months, said Liu.
Liu said the approach would be similar to educational placards at the site of the Thirtymile Fire. “It helps firefighters understand the conditions in which these tragic incidents took place,” he said. “Hopefully we can save lives because people recognize similar conditions.”
Funding for the reflection site and the weathervane came from individuals, firefighters, the Methow Valley Community Theater, Methow Arts, and donations of time and materials from da Costa and weathervane artist David Ferro.