Report by David Reinholz | Associate Conference Lay Leader (PNW)
WENATCHEE, WA – On a day when cooler temperatures and light rain brought hope of an end to what has become one of the worst wildfire seasons in Washington state history, officials from federal and state governments, families, friends, fellow firefighters, and the community gathered at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee to remember and honor three young firefighters who perished in the Twisp River wildfire on August 19, 2015.
United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, State Highway Patrol, State Department of Natural Resources, National Guard, county and local fire departments and Mrs. Trudi Inslee, the wife of the governor Jay Inslee who was travelling internationally, gathered to pay tribute to fallen comrades, Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac, and Thomas Zbyszewski. Two of these firefighters, who died when a wildfire suddenly changed direction and trapped them in their vehicle, have United Methodist ties. Rick and Celeste Wheeler were members of First United Methodist of Wenatchee, while Andrew Zajac is the son of Rev. Mary Zajac, pastor of Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St Charles, Illinois.
Sharply uniformed honor guards, massed pipe and drums, and military-like pomp and precision could not erase the personal loss felt by the families and fellow team members of Rick, Andrew, and Tom. While those gathered sought to honor their sacrifice while vowing to be better servants themselves, they could not escape the plain fact that fighting wildland fires is demanding, dirty, and deadly. These three died doing something they loved, being in the outdoors with other members of a select team, serving others, and protecting the environment.
Speaking at the service, Rev. Mary Zajac reminded those present to make every moment count and be at peace with each day because it could be your last. Don’t put off being your best when you have no guarantee of a tomorrow. She thanked the Forest Service for their support, had nothing but praise for the firefighters present, and reminded those with houses in fire zones to do their part to protect their property so there is less risk to firefighters trying to save their structures.
Tom Zbyszewski’s mother, Jennifer, a Forest Service employee herself said, “I’ve come to realize that at the end of any given day, or at the end of a life, the only thing that matters is how many people you love, and how many people love you.”
For additional coverage of the Memorial Service: