‘I Wish It Was Me’: Families Mourn Fallen Firefighters in Washington

Three firefighters were killed in a Washington wildfire on Wednesday

By Gene Johnson and Brian Skoloff, Associated Press

TWISP, Wash. — Like thousands of other college students in the West, Tom Zbyszewski relished summers on the fire lines — it was outdoor work that paid, that was important, that gave him a little swagger when he returned to school in the fall. His parents, who had fought wildfires themselves, weren’t even nervous about it.

One more week, and Zbyszewski, a 20-year-old physics major with an acting bent, would have been back at Whitman College, telling stories.

Instead, flames driven by shifting winds overtook his crew after they crashed a vehicle Wednesday while fighting a wildfire in Washington state. Zbyszewski and two others were killed and four were injured, one critically.

“It’s what everybody does up here. It’s part of the culture,” his sobbing father, Richard, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday night. “I fought fires for years and years and years — I never even got burned. I wish it was me. I’m an old man.”

The tragedy 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. At least 10 fires were burning in north-central Washington’s Okanogan County alone, where entire towns have emptied as residents headed for safety.

As conditions deteriorated, emergency officials urged the evacuation before dawn Friday of areas on the northwest outskirts of the community of Okanogan, but they didn’t immediately know how many people were affected.

The call came hours after similar orders hit Tonasket, a community of 1,000 people, and its surrounding area, about 60 miles northeast of where the firefighters died.

The fallen firefighters worked for the U.S. Forest Service, which identified the other victims as Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31. Their hometowns weren’t immediately released.

All three were from 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.

The most badly hurt among the survivors 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 Seattle hospital.

Lyon’s mother, Barbara, said her son loves the camaraderie of police officers and firefighters. This 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 a news conference at the hospital. “And I would say, ‘Daniel, I pray for you every night, for all your safety, for you and the others.'”

Fire investigators with notebooks and cameras on Thursday walked the hills near Woods Canyon Road outside Twisp, a recreation center in the scenic Methow Valley 115 miles northeast of Seattle.

The victims’ bodies were removed that afternoon, each man taken out in an individual ambulance, escorted by more than a dozen fire and police vehicles with lights flashing. Firefighters along the route held their hands and helmets over their hearts.

The bodies had been left where they fell Wednesday so investigators could take photographs and map out the scene, Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said. An investigation was expected to take many weeks.

The deaths underscored the danger of this fire season. Nearly 29,000 firefighters — 3,000 of them in Washington — are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought- and heat-stricken West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California.

The 13 firefighters killed so far this season is a relatively high number, according to Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. There were 10 fatalities last year and 15 in 2012, but 34 in 2013, which included 19 members of an elite firefighting crew killed by an out-of-control wildfire near the small town of Yarnell, Arizona.

A large portion of the state’s firefighters are college students, and many come back for years, becoming leaders on fire crews, because they like the work, said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources. The wages are often about $12 to $18 an hour, and with long days, the pay can add up, he said.

“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.”

That was the case for Zbyszewski, an only child who was spending his second summer in the fire camps. His father spent about 20 years as a seasonal firefighter with the Forest Service, and his mother, Jennifer, fought fires and still works for the agency, overseeing trails, campgrounds and recreation programs in Okanogan National Forest, Richard Zbyszewski said.

“That’s the whole story: He wanted some money for college, and he liked the job,” the father said. “It’s just a terrible thing.”