Three seasonal firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service died fighting the Twisp River Fire, and another was seriously injured: Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler perished, and Daniel Lyon suffered severe burns. Three other firefighters were treated for minor injuries. See this link for a story about Zbyszewski.
The following accounts come a variety of sources. Some of the information is used with permission of the Seattle Times, where it was previously published.
Zajac, 26, lived in Winthrop, where he had moved only recently. He was originally from Illinois.
Zajac’s family issued a statement shortly after his death:
“We were devastated to learn of the death of our beloved husband, son, and brother, Andrew Zajac, while fighting the wildfire near Twisp on
Aug. 19, 2015. Andrew grew up hiking and camping and carried that passion with him, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 with Jenn. He and Jenn were married in November 2014 in a ceremony held outdoors near the Gila National Forest and planned to live a long and happy life in the outdoors together.
“Andrew loved nature, pursuing both a bachelor of science in biology from Case Western Reserve in 2010 and a master of science in biology from the University of South Dakota in 2014. This was Andrew’s second year as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, serving in 2014 in Mimbres, New Mexico, and starting in April 2015 in Winthrop.
“We are saddened that a life with such promise has ended so soon and we will miss him deeply.”
Zajac was a two-year starter at right tackle for Case Western’s football team and was named an honorable mention to the all-university athletic association team during his senior year in 2009.
Case Western head football coach Greg Debeljak said Zajac was quiet and academically oriented, “probably more comfortable in a biology lab than he was at a party.”
Zajac’s mother, Mary Zajac, is a pastor at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Illinois. His father, Jim, is a dentist, according to the Chicago Tribune.
After learning that Zajac’s mother was a pastor, members of the St. Charles Fire Department went to the church Thursday and hung memorial bunting, Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet told the Tribune.
“There’s a connection between all firefighters,” Schelstreet said. “There’s a bond that we all share. It doesn’t matter if it’s St. Charles or Washington state.”
Wheeler, 31, was a 10-year veteran seasonal firefighter in the Okanogan area. He had lived in Wenatchee for about a year and was working on a career in public-land management, said his father-in-law, Doug Gruber.
Wheeler had married Gruber’s daughter, Celeste, in 2013 and had lived in South Haven, Michigan, during the off season. They did not have children, Gruber said.
“He died a hero,” Wheeler’s mother, Karen Morey, told WOOD-TV of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “He was a loving husband, wonderful son and brother. He will be greatly missed.”
Wheeler loved the outdoors, hiking, fishing, hunting and nature, family members said.
“He’s a hero through and through. He’s one of the greatest guys we know. He died doing what he loved doing,” Wheeler’s cousin Kristy Beauchamp told WOOD-TV. “He had the best sense of humor. He’s sensitive, loving and cares for everyone.”
Wheeler and his wife were members of the First United Methodist Church in Wenatchee, according to The Wenatchee World.
“I saw him mainly in the winter,” Pastor Joanne Coleman Campbell told The World. “He was always on fires in the summer. He took his work very seriously.”
Coleman Campbell was with Celeste after she received the news of her husband’s death, the newspaper said.
“He was a first responder and always wanted to be on the front lines. He wanted to make firefighting his career,” Coleman Campbell told The World. “He was a gentle man who loved his wife and his work. If he had to die, I’m sure he would have wanted it to happen while fighting a fire to save others.”
Lyon remains at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, recovering from severe burns. His condition was listed as critical on Tuesday (Aug. 25).
His family spent Wednesday night (Aug. 19) standing vigil at his bedside at Harborview. The injured firefighter’s older brother believed Lyon “could register” that they were all there.
“Oh man, he’s a good kid all around. He’s definitely the favorite child,” said Levi Lyon, 35, of Tacoma.
Lyon has mostly third-degree burns on half to two-thirds of his body, according to Dr. Tam Pham, a University of Washington Medicine surgeon and burn-trauma specialist. He is undergoing the resuscitative phase, which involves replacing fluid.
He will have a long road toward recovery, Pham said during a news conference Thursday (Aug. 20) at the hospital.
Lyon underwent his first surgery Friday (Aug. 21) to remove damaged tissue but remains in critical condition, said Susan Gregg, a spokeswoman for Harborview. Gregg said Lyon is still in the Intensive Care Unit.
She says he is unable to speak because he’s on a respirator, but is able to respond when his parents and others speak to him.
Lyon, a Rogers High School graduate and a reserve officer for the Milton Police Department, signed up to fight wildfires simply because he wanted to help, Levi Lyon said.
“His hope and dream was to be a police officer,” he said. “He was doing some forest firefighting to get some extra work. He was trying to help out a good cause.”
Lyon is the youngest of three children. The siblings grew up in Puyallup.
This was Lyon’s first wildfire-fighting season, his parents, Daniel and Barbara Lyon, said at the news conference.
He would call his parents every day and tell them not to worry, that things were going well.
“He talked about the exhilaration,” Daniel Lyon said. “When you’re young, you only talk about the good aspects.”
Milton Mayor Debra Perry and Police Chief Tony Hernandez visited Lyon at the hospital Thursday night
Injured DNR firefighters recovering
Two Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildland firefighters, who were injured on Aug. 19 as they fought the Twisp River Fire, are recuperating, the agency said.
DNR employee Donald Smith was treated and released the day of the incident, while Reed Callis was kept overnight and released the next day. A contractor working with the DNR fire team also has been released from the hospital.
“While grateful that our colleagues are home, it is still a sad time,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the three Forest Service firefighters killed by this fire. We continue to keep the injured Forest Service firefighter, Daniel Lyon, in our thoughts.”