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Washington State Tragedy Highlights Firefighters' Youth, Passion

  • Associated Press

Jackson Hotshots' firefighters, from Jackson, Mississippi, stand with hands and helmets over their hearts as they watch a motorcade, carrying the bodies of firefighters killed a day earlier while fighting a wildfire, drive past, Aug. 20, 2015, in Twisp, Washington.

Jackson Hotshots' firefighters, from Jackson, Mississippi, stand with hands and helmets over their hearts as they watch a motorcade, carrying the bodies of firefighters killed a day earlier while fighting a wildfire, drive past, Aug. 20, 2015, in Twisp, Washington.

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 - are 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.

Firefighters prepare to battle the Wolverine wildfire near Chelan, Washington, in this U.S. Forest Service picture taken Aug. 16, 2015.

Firefighters prepare to battle the Wolverine wildfire near Chelan, Washington, in this U.S. Forest Service picture taken Aug. 16, 2015.

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 Tidwell said.

It's not enough. Additional personnel and equipment were being brought in from abroad, and Washington state officials have called for volunteers to help fight the flames.

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.

Wheeler, 31, the oldest of the three firefighters who died Wednesday, started fighting fires to save money for college then 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 Michigan's Grand Valley State University. 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 a professional wildland firefighter for the Forest Service and received a master's degree from the University of South Dakota last year, according to the Spokesman-Review.

Zajac was a football player in college and he previously worked as a firefighter in New Mexico, the newspaper reported.

A message left at the Rev. Mary Zajac's Baker Memorial United Methodist Church was not immediately returned. The church posted a message for the congregation on its Facebook page.

"We grieve the loss of Pastor Mary and Jim Zajac's son, Andrew, while fighting wildfires in the state of Washington. We have no additional information at this time. Please keep them in your hearts and prayers,'' the message 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 Seattle hospital.

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.'''

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