Aug 21, 2015 9:08 PM

Washington tragedy highlights firefighters' youth, passion

The Associated Press

TWISP, Wash. (AP) One was a college student for whom fighting fires was a summer job. Another had graduated and wanted to make firefighting his career. The third was already a professional firefighter who had gone back to school to earn his master's degree.

Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac the three men who died Wednesday when flames consumed their crashed vehicle in Washington state were typical of the wildland firefighters who start out as fresh-faced college kids making as little as $12 an hour then find themselves hooked on the work.

Four others were injured in the canyon, one critically. But their firefighting brothers and sisters had little time to mourn as raging fires forced entire communities to flee their homes 60 miles away.

The complex of fires grew more than 100 square miles in a single day, creating a situation too chaotic to even track how many homes had burned.

"We have lost them, but I don't know how many," Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. "We've got no idea."

As conditions worsened, emergency officials ordered evacuations in Okanogan, with 2,500 residents, as well as Tonasket, a community of 1,000 people, and its surrounding area.

Not everyone who was told to leave was willing to go.

"I've been up for like 40 hours, and I was very nervous, very concerned because (the fire) was going to take everything we have, us and the rest of our friends," said Al Dodson, who stayed home despite evacuation orders in Twisp, 40 miles west of Okanogan.

Nearly 29,000 firefighters 3,000 of them in Washington are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought-and heat-stricken West, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California. Thirteen people have died.

There are more firefighters on the ground this season than ever before, and the U.S. government is spending more than $150 million a week on fire suppression, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

It's not enough. Additional personnel and equipment were being brought in from abroad, and Washington state officials have called for volunteers who own and can operate equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers.

In addition, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing federal help for 11 Washington counties and four Native American tribes.

Some of the firefighters on the ground are following a family tradition, emulating their parents or a favorite uncle. Many are college students who need money, find they like the work, and eventually become leaders on fire crews, said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for Washington's Department of Natural Resources.

"It's a lot of people who love the place, who love protecting it, and it's a great way to spend the summer," Smillie said. "It gets passed down almost as a summer tradition in a lot of families. Around the camps, you see a lot of children and grandchildren of some of our older firefighters."

The wages are often about $12 to $18 an hour, and with long days, the pay can add up, he said.

The three firefighters who died were based in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said forest spokeswoman Carrie McCausland. They belonged to specialized crews that immediately assess fire scenes and report back to commanders.

The crews were in the canyon in two vehicles and on foot when the flames raced toward them. One vehicle made it out safely, but the other carrying the three firefighters who were killed crashed. The four firefighters who were injured were among those who fled on foot, Rogers said.

Wheeler, 31, the oldest of the three, started fighting fires to save money for college and realized he could dedicate his life to something that had meaning, said the Rev. Joanne Coleman Campbell, his pastor at Wenatchee First United Methodist Church.

"He fell in love with that and decided he wanted to make it his career," Coleman Campbell said.

This was Wheeler and his wife Celeste's second year living in Wenatchee after he graduated in 2013 from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He was a seasonal worker with hopes of becoming a permanent wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.

He had been fighting fires for a decade. His father, who died when Wheeler was 2, was a firefighter, too.

Zbyszewski also followed in his father's footsteps. He was the youngest of the three who died, a 20-year-old physics major at Whitman College with an acting bent. He was due to return to school next week.

"I fought fires for years and years and years I never even got burned. I wish it was me. I'm an old man," his father Richard Zbyszewski said, sobbing.

Zajac, 26, was the son of a Methodist minister from Downers Grove, Illinois. He was in his second year as a professional wildland firefighter for the Forest Service and earned a master's degree in biology last year from the University of South Dakota.

Zajac and his wife Jenn were married last year after hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Coast Trail together in 2013, according to a statement from his family released by the Forest Service.

"We are saddened that a life with such promise has ended so soon and we will miss him deeply," the statement said.

The most badly hurt among the survivors Wednesday was Daniel Lyon, 25, a reserve police officer in Milton, who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body and was in critical condition at a hospital in Seattle.

Lyon's mother, Barbara Lyon, said her son loves the camaraderie of firefighters and police officers. It was his first summer on the fire lines.

"He would call me every day and always tell me not to worry, things are fine," she said. "And I would say, 'Daniel, I pray for you every night, for all your safety, for you and the others.'"


Volz reported from Helena, Montana. AP writers Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Washington, and Gene Johnson in Seattle also contributed to this report.


This version has been updated to correct the name of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.


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