Honoring 3 firefighters that gave their lives in Northwest blaze: Obama declares state of emergency (31 photos and story)
AP Photos: Ted S Warren/Elaine Thompson
Three firefighters killed battling raging wildfires in Washington state were being mourned Friday across the state and the country, even as thinly stretched crews were joined by private citizens as they battled more than 100 fires in five states across the west.
We honor the men who died battling the Washington blaze, Tom Zbyszewki, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31 were members of an elite crew that scoped out the size of a wildfire before other firefighters were sent in. Their vehicle crashed Wednesday and, before they could escape, flames rolled over them. Four other firefighters nearby were injured, one critically.
It is important to recognize the sacrifice made by men of this caliber. They put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. Our thoughts go out to the family of these brave men, those injured and all that continue the fight. Thank you for your selfless service.
The fatalities came as some 29,000 firefighters, including responders from as far away as New Zealand, joined local crews in their struggles against fires that have consumed 11,000 square miles so far. Most of the ravaged land has been in Alaska, but an increase in fires in the Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California has caused competition for firefighting resources with some requests going unmet.
Some fires have simply been unstoppable. Steve Ellis, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, earlier this week flew over a 443-square-mile rangeland fire in southwest Idaho and said he could see where retardant bombers put in lines that the fire easily crossed.
“What we’re getting now are much more intense fires because of all those years of suppression,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and a public lands expert. “Those kinds of intense fires are usually not allowed to burn.”
Last friday, 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 told the Associated Press. “We’ve got no idea.”
The three deaths were a grim reminder of the dangers faced as wind-whipped forest fires swept through parched woodlands. Zbyszewki had been fighting fires for two years to pay for his education at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., Q13 Fox reported. He was set to return to school this week.
His parents fought wildfires for 20 years and fighting fires was his family’s legacy, the station said.
“He was the light of our life,” his broken-hearted father Richard Zbyszewski told the station. “We’d give anything to have (last Wednesday) not happen.”
Wheeler was a West Michigan native and fourth-generation firefighter who still lived in West Michigan during the winter, Wood TV 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich., reported.
“He died a hero,” Wheeler’s mother, Karen Morey, told the station Thursday night. “He was a loving husband, wonderful son and brother. He will be greatly missed.”
Wheeler graduated from South Haven High School in 2003, according to his father-in-law, Doug Gruber. He had been fighting wildfires for 10 years.
In Michigan, Wheeler was pursuing a degree in natural resources management at Grand Valley State University.
Zajac, 26, of Downers Grove, Ill., and most recently of Winthrop, loved the outdoors. He completed a nearly 5-month north-to-south hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 with his girlfriend, the Wenatchee World reported.
He had a biology degree from Case Western Reserve University and a master’s degree from University of South Dakota in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page, the paper said.
Zajac was a two-year starter at right tackle for Case Western’s football team. He also fought wildfires in New Mexico.
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.
The 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.”
The critically injured firefighter was Daniel Lyon, 25. He was airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, Q13 Fox said.
Lyon reportedly has burns over 60 percent of his body. He’s awake, but heavily medicated, hospital officials said.
The three other injured firefighters were reportedly released from local hospitals, the station said.
Emergency workers from Australia and New Zealand are travelling to the western United States to help fight raging wildfires in five states including Washington, where Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency as massive fires are burning out of control.
Obama’s order authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts. It covers 11 counties in central and eastern Washington as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation.
The specialists from New Zealand and Australia will join the nearly 29,000 firefighters working in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho and California to combat daunting blazes that have overtaken the region.
“The crews being deployed are very experienced in dealing with large wildfires having handled fires on similar terrain across Australia,” Craig Lapsley, emergency management commissioner for the Australian state of Victoria, said in a statement.
The crew from across the Pacific includes 56 people from Australia and 15 from New Zealand. They are set to arrive in Boise, Idaho, for a briefing over the weekend before being dispatched across the western US.
The US Department of Defense sent more than 200 active-duty soldiers to fight fires in the region, the first time the Boise-based fire agency has used that option since 2006.
We salute all firefighters, National Guard, New Zealand and Australians that continue to put themselves in danger to protect others. If you see a fireman, thank him for his service!