The three firefighters who were killed Wednesday in the Okanagon Complex fire in north-central Washington have been identified.
They are Tom Zbyszewski, a 20-year-old student at Whitman College; Andrew Zajac, a 26-year-old Forest Service worker stationed in Winthrop; and Richard Wheeler, 31. The three men were part of a five-person engine crew that got into a collision.
Zbyszewski, of Carlton, Washington, was a thespian and a physics major at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
Whitman President Kathy Murray issued a statement about Zbyszewski, a junior, on Thursday.
“Tom was a junior physics major and was very involved in the theater department. Most recently he was the Mushroom King in the Instant Play Festival, Rusty in 'Junglers' (the One Act Play Contest) and the son in 'Three Tall Women,'” Murray wrote. “He also appeared as one of the Interjectors in 'Ukulele.' He had a passion for the Chinese language and loved Whitman.”
In 2013, the Spokesman-Review reported that Zbyszewski placed first place in a Poetry Out Loud competition. He was then a student at Liberty Bell High School in the Methow Valley, near where the fire claimed his life.
Andrew Zajac was a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. He had been stationed in Winthrop for five months and had spent last year's fire season stationed in New Mexico, according to his LinkedIn page.
According to his LinkedIn page, he attended Downers Grove North High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and played varsity football, varsity wrestling and had a spot in the orchestra. He wrote that he graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average.
He went on to Case Western Reserve University and the University of South Dakota, where he got a master’s in biology in 2014.
His Facebook page indicates that he was an adventurous type with a dry sense of humor. He joked about his fluffy beard grown while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, calling it “a beard you don’t shave until you have finished hiking.”
“The whole trail took 4.5 months so this picture doesn’t represent the full magnificence that the beard achieved,” Zajac wrote in a comment on a photo from that time.
The Wenatchee World reported that Richard Wheeler had moved to Wenatchee about a year ago with his wife, Celeste. The World quoted Pastor Joanne Coleman Campbell as saying Wheeler hoped to make firefighting a career.
The newspaper said Wheeler had grown up in Michigan.
Injured in the fire was Daniel Lyon of Puyallup, a firefighter for the Forest Service.