Three More Firefighters Die Fighting Blazes in West

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press
Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

Three firefighters died last week fighting in the Methow River Valley roughly 100 miles northeast of Seattle when their fire engine crashed, leaving them at the mercy of the fire.

Andrew Zajac, 26, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, and Richard Wheeler, 31, working for the U.S. Forest Service, were killed.

Zajac had been married only six months; he had graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 2010, where he starred at right tackle for the football team before attending the University of South Dakota, where he obtained a master’s degree. He worked as a firefighter in New Mexico.

Wheeler and his wife Celeste had known each other since high school. He was a fourth-generation firefighter.

Zbyszewski also came from a firefighting family; his father Richard was a firefighter, and his mother still works for the Forest Service.

On Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee mourned, stating the deaths “burned a big hole in our state’s heart.”

The Methow River Valley fire has mushroomed to 140 square miles, threatening the communities of Twisp and Winthrop. Bill Queen, a firefighting spokesperson, said Zajac, Zbyszewski, and Wheeler came “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.” He added that the men “got caught in a burn over.”

Roughly 29,000 firefighters have gathered to fight the fires across the West, 3,000 of them in Washington State. Thirteen firefighters have died fighting the blazes.