Last week’s deaths of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters and the critical burn injuries suffered by a fourth were painful reminders of the risks that first responders take to protect our communities and natural resources.
A USFS team was sent to the scene near Twisp to begin investigating what can be learned from the heartbreaking deaths to prevent a recurrence as forest fires become more frequent.
All four men were part of a special Forest Service rapid-response team that went ahead of other fire personnel teams to protect residents and their property from fire. Their vehicle crashed as they drove up a gravel road bounded by steep hills. Fire trapped them.
By all accounts, we lost three good guys who had a lot to live for. The Seattle Times said they were:
▪ Richard Wheeler, 31, a 10-year seasonal firefighter from Wenatchee who was married and working on a public-land management career.
▪ Andrew Zajac, 26, of Winthrop, who earned a biology degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he played football for two years, and a master of science degree from the University of South Dakota in 2014. He was in his second season fighting fires.
▪ Tom Zbyszewski, 20, of Carlton in Okanogan County, who was in his second season of firefighting; the physics major at Whitman College was also in theater.
Expected to survive but badly burned was 25-year-old Daniel Lyon of Puyallup, who has third-degree burns on more than 60 percent of his body. He was in his first season fighting fires and has been a reserve officer with Milton police.
The deaths come at a time the state and nation appear over-matched by the 100-plus wildfires sweeping the West. The fire emergencies are so big that soldiers and equipment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were dispatched to fire lines last week for the first time since 2006. The state Department of Natural Resources for the first time asked publicly for volunteers to step up for training.
At least 18 large blazes have consumed more than 630,000 acres so far in Washington. They have destroyed more than 100 homes and threatened 5,000 more, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
On Friday, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Washington, which freed up federal communications equipment, additional trucks and emergency power generators as well as counseling for affected communities. No money to reimburse local or state governments is coming, because unlike hurricanes and other disasters, fires are not eligible for that kind of assistance.
At the state level, costs are mounting for DNR after Washington legislators skimped on Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s request for extra equipment and funds this year. But lawmakers often make up for fire costs after the fact in supplemental budgets
Nationally, wildfire is burning up the USFS budget. For the first time in its 110-year history, the agency is on track to spend more than half of its resources on fire suppression. The agency issued a report on Aug. 5 that predicted this share to rise to two-thirds within the decade — unless a long-overdue change is made in how firefighting emergencies are funded. The goal is to retain USFS money for efforts that reduce fire risks.
There is a move afoot to fix this in September. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and eight other senators signed onto a bill addressing it.
Extraordinary fire costs would be paid out of a special disaster account that wouldn’t rob other USFS programs that pay for forest restoration and watershed and landscape management. Cantwell separately is exploring ways to reduce risks before fires break out.
For now, coping with the tragic loss of lives, homes and businesses, and the ongoing fires and smoke are the main worries. When flames are finally extinguished, we still need to remember these fires and their victims so we can appropriately address ways to prevent and pay for fighting wildfires.