Fallen firefighter's family, colleagues look ahead to another wildfire season

Tom Zbyszewski

TWISP, Wash. -- Snow coated the troubled town of Twisp long before the land could heal. On Thursday, a powder mask covered the scorched land, blackened by the wildfires that torched Central Washington last summer.

But in the frigid white of winter, some see through the snow.

"It's hard. It's really hard," Jordy Lewis said.

Lewis was assigned to the Twisp River Fire last August. He was there when the winds changed and the crews fled. That day, three firefighters died after their vehicle went off the road.

"I think about it every day," Lewis said, as he walked toward the spot where the three firefighters lost their lives. "It shouldn't have happened.

Lewis is a career wildfire crew member. He says fighting fires is in his blood, but now he constantly replays the frontline fight that changed his life.

After the crash, Lewis was one of the firefighters tasked with cooling the torched truck so that investigators could come into the scene.

"It was honorable," Lewis said. "Anything I could do to make sure they got out of there better than they were, I did that."

Jordy still returns to see the makeshift memorial that sits below the driveway where Andrew Zajac, Richard Wheeler, and Tom Zbyszewski lost their lives. All that's left is a tattered purple ribbon and a fire helmet dug into the snow as if winter wanted to hide it.

"It could have been any one of us," Lewis said.

And he's not the only one who still feels pain.

Richard and Jennifer Zbyszewski wish they could erase that day too.

Their son, Tom, was one of the firefighters who died that day in Twisp. He was 20 years old.

"The bottom fell out of my life," Jennifer Zbyszewski, his mother, said. "My heart is broken."

Tom grew up in Carlton, just south of Twisp. He was an only child, who loved science and theater. He fought fires in the summer to make some extra money.

He came from a firefighting family. His father was on the line for more than two decades. His mother still works for the Forest Service.

"I knew there was a possibility there, though I never thought in a million years that would happen to Tom," Jennifer said. She was doing administrative work on the Twisp River Fire the day Tom died.

Now her focus has shifted to this summer.

She doesn't want her retirement to always be connected to Tom's death, but she's not sure she can bear returning to the fire line.

"It'll bring back those memories of Tom," she said. "And I know it'll be hard to see the crews come back, you know. Because Tom won't be with them."

She says she'll take it one day at a time. Her family may leave Okanogan County instead.

Jordy Lewis also doesn't know if he'll continue to fight fires. As he gazed at the snow covered memorial for his fallen brothers he thought of his own six children.

"I don't want them to have to come to a place like this," he said.

But he also says he feels a sense of duty, to honor Andrew, Richard and Tom by protecting his community once more. And he says those men will be there when the snow melts, and the scars resurface, and another fight begins.

"On every fire, watching every firefighter," Lewis said.

"They'll always be there."

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