Four seasonal firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service were hurt or killed this week in a firestorm on a hillside near Twisp in Okanogan County:
Daniel Lyon, a Rogers High School graduate and a reserve officer for the Milton Police Department, signed up to fight wildfires because he wanted to help, his older brother said.
“Oh man, he’s a good kid all around,” said Levi Lyon, 35, of Tacoma. “He’s definitely the favorite child.”
The 25-year-old Puyallup resident has mostly third-degree burns on half to two-thirds of his body and is being treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
He will have a long road toward recovery, said Dr. Tam Pham, a University of Washington Medicine surgeon and burn-trauma specialist.
He initially was undergoing the resuscitative phase of treatment, which involves replacing fluid. Depending on how things progress, he might move to the operative phase by Friday.
Lyon is the youngest of three children. The siblings grew up in Puyallup.
“His hope and dream was to be a police officer,” Levi Lyon said. “He was doing some forest firefighting to get some extra work. He was trying to help out a good cause.”
This was Lyon’s first wildfire-fighting season, said his parents, Daniel and Barbara Lyon.
He would call his parents every day and tell them not to worry, that things were going well.
“He talked about the exhilaration,” his father said. “When you’re young, you only talk about the good aspects.”
The youngest of the victims was Tom Zbyszewski, 20, who lived not far from where he died.
Standing on the back porch of the family home in tiny Carlton, Okanogan County, his mother, Jennifer Zbyszewski, said her only child had been preparing to return to his junior year at Whitman College in Walla Walla in about a week.
It was his second year as a seasonal firefighter. He had worked on an engine crew during the Carlton Complex Fire last year, she said.
Zbyszewski’s Facebook page, which includes a grinning photograph of him eating a packaged meal and dressed in firefighter garb, indicates he was active in drama classes and had been a lifeguard at Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp.
Jennifer Zbyszewski, who works for the Forest Service, was helping coordinate evacuations Wednesday when she learned over the radio that firefighters had been trapped.
It took hours, she said, to confirm her son was among the dead.
She and her husband have been wildland firefighters as well, and the Forest Service was stamped in Tom’s DNA, she said.
“He liked the physical part, the-get-in-shape part,” she said. “And the work. Mostly, he loved the camaraderie.”
“He was the center of our lives, the joy of our lives,” his mother said.
Whitman College President Kathy Murray described Zbyszewski as a junior physics major who was “very involved in the Theatre Department.”
Most recently, Murray wrote, Zbyszewski portrayed the Mushroom King in the Instant Play Festival, Rusty in the “Junglers” (The One Act Play Contest) and the son in “Three Tall Women.”
He also had “a passion for the Chinese language and loved Whitman,” Murray said.
David Dinsmore III, on his Facebook page, wrote: “I worked with Tom Zbyszewski for two summers as a lifeguard in Twisp. Tom was one of a kind and I would find myself talking and laughing with him for hours on end.
“He was an incredibly intelligent young man and someone I looked up to.
“Rest in peace my friend, you were loved by many more than you could’ve ever known.”
Originally from Illinois, Andrew Zajac, 26, lived in Winthrop, in Okanogan County.
He received a degree in biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2010 and a master of science degree from the University of South Dakota in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.
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.
He had previously worked as a firefighter in New Mexico.
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.
This was the second year Zajac was fighting fires in the West, his family told WGN-TV. He was married, and relatives described him as a hardworking outdoorsman and athlete.
After learning 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.”
Richard Wheeler, a 10-year veteran seasonal firefighter in the Okanogan, lived in Wenatchee and was working on a career in public-land management, said his father-in-law, Doug Gruber.
Wheeler, 31, 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.”