Tom Zbyszewski, 20, was one of three firefighters who was killed Wednesday night battling a blaze that has blackened more than 7,800 acres in the Methow Valley — a rural area of eastern Washington known for small towns nestled in a pristine, postcard-worthy mountain landscape.
Tom and the two others, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31, were members of a specially trained unit elected to dart ahead of their colleagues into an oncoming fire and size up the situation, according to the Associated Press. But on Wednesday, their vehicle crashed, and the men were quickly engulfed by the fast encroaching flames.
“These fires have burned a big hole in our state’s heart,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a press conference Thursday. He described the fallen firefighters as “big heroes protecting small towns.”
That description is particularly apt for the Methow Valley, where small, close-knit communities are threatened annually by fires in the surrounding forest and the effort to contain the blazes is often a fight to save a neighbor’s home — or one’s own.
In Okanogan County, which encompasses the valley, at least 35 buildings have been destroyed by fire, according to the Seattle Times. Another 5,400 homes have been evacuated as five separate fires in the area converged into a single deadly complex encompassing more than 100 square miles of land.
More than 700 firefighters have been deployed to combat the Okanogan Complex blaze. Some are expert crews called in from around the country, but many others are locals like Zbyszewski, young men and women for whom firefighting is a summer job and a community duty.
Tom, a native of tiny Carlton, Wash., grew up within view of the North Cascade mountain range. The work of the U.S. Forest Service, and the presence of wildfires, were always on the fringes of his awareness — both his parents had worked for the Forest Service and helped to fight fires.
But for most his childhood, Tom was focused on other things. His mother described him as a “real exceptional kid,” reserved but big-hearted, with a firm sense of justice and an affection for underdogs. He studied physics at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Walla Walla, and devoted much of his free time to acting. On stage, Jennifer Zbyszewski said, her soft-spoken son was transfigured. He became bold and charismatic — he practically glowed.
Last year, when Tom returned to Carlton after his first year at college, he opted to take a summer job with the Forest Service, where his mother already worked.
Tom immediately found his place there, Jennifer Zbyszewski said. He was passionate, professional and irresistibly friendly.
“It was such a sense of pride for me,” she said. “To see what a good job he did, and how hard he worked and how much everybody liked him.”
But 2014 was a dangerous summer to be fighting wildfires in the Methow Valley. On July 14, according to the Methow Valley News, a series of lightning strikes set off several blazes around the region, which was already parched from drought. Within three days, the fires had metastasized into a huge, 150,000-acre complex. The blaze devoured hillsides and toppled utility lines, cutting off electricity to much of the valley. Towns were evacuated, roads closed off. It would take a month and a half for the fire to be contained.
No one died in the Calton Complex fire, though it destroyed nearly 250 homes. But it is remembered now as “The Fire,” an unruly, ravenous monster worse than anything the valley had ever seen. Indeed, it was worse than anything Washington had ever seen — at nearly 270,000 acres, it was the largest in state history.
“The Fire assaulted all our senses. It was in our face, over our heads, across our roads, through our properties, taunting us from ridgelines, hovering in the hills,” Don Nelson, the editor of the Methow Valley News, wrote in an editorial for a special issue about the Carlton Complex. “… ‘Incinerated’ isn’t adequate to the task of characterizing the loss.”
Tom, just 19 years old, was there amid all of it.
Initially drawn to the physicality of firefighting, he quickly fell in love with the camaraderie of a fire crew, his mother said. Tom worked on a five-person engine team, driving around huge tanks of water in an attempt to dampen a blaze. He would come home from work sweaty, sooty and smiling, often with stories to tell about the work he’d done that day.
“There was one time when he and his crew were the first to respond to a fire,” Jennifer Zbyszewski recalled. “And they built a fire line around a house that kept it from burning down. He was proud of that.”
Another time, Tom was sent up to another part of the valley, to stop the fire from encroaching on a nearby town. He suddenly found himself in front of the home of a family friend, fighting to protect a house he knew. It was a “stand out day for him,” his mother said.
Tom was happy to return to his summer job this year, after wrapping up his sophomore year at Whitman.
“It meant so much to him being able to help save people’s homes and fight the fire,” Jennifer Zbyszewski said. “He talked a lot [about] how much the camaraderie of the crew meant to him, how much affection he had for the firefighters that he worked with.”
This summer’s fires have burned less acreage than the Carlton Complex, but they have proven difficult to manage in other ways. Another year of drought has made the valley even drier than it was in 2014, turning stands of trees and entire hillsides into tinder. And winds in recent days have churned the Twisp River Fire — which Tom was battling when he died — into a “hellstorm,” as Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers termed it.
Both of Zbyszewski’s parents have fought fires themselves, and they were aware of the risks involved. But their experience with the Forest Service made them feel better about their only son’s efforts on the front lines of this summer’s catastrophic blazes.
“I know the people that supervise him and I knew what an incredible focus they have on firefighter safety. They would never have put Tom in harm’s way,” Jennifer Zbyszewski said. “But there are certain situations when you’re fighting a wildfire that things get out of control in a heartbeat.”
“But we never in our wildest dreams thought it would happen to our son,” she continued. “… You know, life is never fair. But this doesn’t seem like it was a fair hand to deal.”