3 fallen firefighters remembered as 'big heroes protecting small towns'

OKANOGAN CO., Wash. — Three firefighters on the front lines of a wildfire in arid central Washington gave their lives trying to stop massive flames from spreading.


Four others, from various agencies including Department of Natural Resources, were injured when a blaze enveloped a vehicle that crashed carrying the crew on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) officials identified three fallen U.S. Forest Service firefighters as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.

Daniel Lyon, age 25, has burns on over 60 percent of his body at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. The three other injured firefighters have been released from treatment.

Lyon remained critical in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center, as of Sunday afternoon.

“We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters,” said Mike Williams, Forest Supervisor on the OWNF.

>> PHOTOS: Wildfires wreak havoc in drought-choked Washington

On Sunday, August 22, officials said two Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildland firefighters, who were injured on Aug. 19 as they fought a fire near Twisp, were still recuperating.

DNR employee Donald Smith was treated and released on the day of the incident, while Reed Callis was kept overnight and released the next day.

According to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, the three Forest Service deaths occurred in a wildfire on Department of Natural Resources land near Twisp, Washington.

"The firefighters were engaged in initial attack operations and were involved in a vehicle accident when it is believed that the fire overtook the vehicle," Rogers said in a news release.

The tragedy Wednesday night cast a pall in Washington state and brought to 13 the number of firefighters killed across the West this year during one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record.

Blazes have "burned a big hole in our state's heart," Gov. Jay Inslee lamented Thursday, describing the outbreak as an "unprecedented cataclysm."

"These are three big heroes protecting small towns," the governor said, urging residents to "thank a firefighter."

Inslee requested to file a federal Emergency Declaration to secure additional wildfire resources.

In an emailed statement, the White House said President Barack Obama had been apprised of the deaths. He directed the administration to stay in touch with state and local officials and to provide federal assistance as necessary.

The deaths happened in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, where a series of blazes covering close to 140 square miles had merged. The flames burned an undetermined number of homes and triggered orders to about 1,300 people in the outdoor-recreation communities of Twisp and Winthrop to evacuate.

Fires continue to burn on Thursday.

The Okanogan County Emergency Management department issued the order for several towns, which combined have a population of about 1,300. Click here for full Okanogan County coverage.

Critically injured firefighter is also reserve police officer for Milton PD

While families and friends of the three firefighters killed near Twisp are grieving, one family is praying their son will survive 3rd degree burns over two-thirds of his body.

Dan and Barbara Lyon of Stevensville, Montana, spoke to reporters and held back tears at Harborview Medical Center on Thursday. Their 25-year old son, Daniel, is being treated at the Seattle hospital after being critically injured while fighting wildfires near Twisp.

Harborview Medical Center told KIRO 7 Lyon remains in critical condition as of Friday, but his first surgery was successful.

“He’s just a go-getter, and when he sets his mind to something, he’s going to do it,” Barbara Lyon said. “He would call me every day and always tell me not to worry.  Things are fine.”

“He’s just been a great, great, wonderful child,” Dan Lyon said. “He’s the kind of kid his mother and I, and his family, are so proud of. He loves the outdoors and serving his community.”

"He's got a lot of family by the bedside, and I think that obviously helps and we're hopeful," HMC spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.

Daniel Lyon is not only a rookie firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, but he is also a rookie reserve police officer for the city of Milton, near his hometown of Puyallup.

“He rode with me right before he went over to Eastern Washington,” Sgt. Nils Luckman told KIRO 7.  Luckman and other Milton police officers have been at Harborview since Lyon was airlifted there Wednesday for treatment. “He rode with me, and he’s a really good guy, soaking up the information, trying to get as much information as he could,” said Luckman.

Lyon survived the firefight that killed three of his U.S. Forest Service colleagues. The 2009 Rogers High School graduate is in critical condition. When asked about Lyon’s long-term prognosis, his attending physician, Dr. Tam Pham, said “I would take this a day at a time right now. I have a lot of hope that he will do well in our care. We’re working very hard to make him better.”

Pham said he’s encouraged by Lyon’s calm demeanor: “If you have to have a burn, you want to be 25 and healthy and a fighter, so I think that’s on our side for sure.”

Luckman acknowledged that it’s too soon to know whether Lyon will be able to return to police or firefighting work. “I think this was a life-changing event for Dan, knowing what happened but also knowing the road he’s got ahead for himself.  So, it’s a long road for him.”

'He was ... the light of our lives'

The parents of fallen firefighter Tom Zbyszewski, remember his zest for life.

It is the worst moment for Richard and Jennifer Zbyszewski. Their only child is gone.

"I wish I could take yesterday back and not let him go to work," Richard Zbyszewski said.

This is Tom Zbyszewski, one of the three heroes who gave their lives fighting the #WaWildfires. Please share to honor...

Posted by KIRO 7 Eyewitness News on Thursday, August 20, 2015

For the second summer, their 20-year old son, Tom, worked as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter while home from Whitman College, where he was about to start his junior year studying physics and Chinese.

Both parents have worked for the U.S. Forest Service and fought wildland fires.

"So maybe naively so, we didn't feel nervous about it because we had done it also," Jennifer Zbyszewski said.

The parents of fallen firefighter Tom Zbyszewski, 20 remember his zest for life. He died protecting the Methow Valley, the place they say shaped him. Hear from them on KIRO 7 News at 6 and on the CBS Evening News at 6:30

Posted by Graham Johnson on Thursday, August 20, 2015

They know firefighters look out for one another, but this fire that flared up in Twisp was so extreme.

"There's no place safe in the Methow right now," Richard Zbsyzewski said.

His parents say the Methow Valley and its people made Tom who he was.

He died trying to protect the community.

His parents are glad he is considered a hero, but his mother adds, "we would rather have him not a hero and have him here with us today."

Now, they cherish memories of a bright young man, a supporter of the underdog, a friend to so many.

"He was a great son and we loved being his parents. And we're so sad," Jennifer Zbyszewski said.

Firfighting was the way he served the community

Rev. Joanne Coleman Campbell, pastor to Richard Wheeler, 31. Campbell said Wheeler and his wife Celeste moved to Wenatchee about a year ago so he, after years as a season firefighter, could work at it full time.

This is Richard Wheeler, one of the three heroes who gave their lives fighting the #WaWildfires. Please share to honor...

Posted by KIRO 7 Eyewitness News on Thursday, August 20, 2015

“He did firefighting one summer just to make the college bills,” Coleman Campbell said. “He fell in love with it, felt it was his calling and a way to serve his community and felt very strongly about protecting people.”

Coleman Campbell was with Celeste when she found out about her husband.

“Celeste is devastated,” the pastor said. “She's doing as well as can be expected. Her parents came out from Michigan to be with her.”

Remembering Andrew Zajac's service

Family of fallen firefighter Andrew Zajac, 26, released a statement on Friday.

"We were devastated to learn of the death of our beloved husband, son, and brother, Andrew Zajac, 26, while fighting the wildfire near Twisp, Washington on August 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 US Forest Service, serving in 2014 in Mimbres, New Mexico and starting in April 2015 in Winthrop, Washington."

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

On Sunday, Andrew's family released a video statement, in his memory.

“Our Andrew was a man that you could count on to do everything in his power to protect the people and the places that he loved," said Mary Zajac, fallen firefighter Andrew Zajac’s mother. “We are proud of him and all that he’s done.”

This is Andrew Zajac, one of the three heroes who gave their lives fighting the #WaWildfires. Please share to honor his...

Posted by KIRO 7 Eyewitness News on Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wildfires continue to burn

The fallen firefighters were from highly specialized crews that go into dangerous areas as fast as they can to examine a scene and report back to commanders on what needs to be done, said Bill Queen, a firefighting spokesman.

A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 50 square miles and prompted the evacuation of Conconully, home to about 200 people 20 miles northwest of Omak — with further urgent evacuation orders issued Wednesday night for an area south of Conconully to the Omak town line.

More than 3,000 firefighters were in Washington on Thursday fighting fires. Here is a map showing where fires are burning now.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

>> PHOTOS: Wildfires wreak havoc in drought-choked Washington