On August 19, 2015, four U.S. Forest Service firefighters were caught and consumed by a blaze that was part of the largest wildfire season in Washington state’s history. Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died. Daniel Lyon survived. The 26-year-old Puyallup native’s recovery from the trauma that followed has been slow, and early on he had trouble envisioning a time when he could put that day behind him. But now, one year later, he’s finding joy in small things: driving a four-wheeler, taking a walk through the forest, spending time with his girlfriend. Nothing will be the same again, but he’s learning to live with that. —Matthew Halverson
I actually started as a reserve police officer. My parents wanted me to take any other job, so they were a little more open to me going into firefighting. But of course when I was firefighting, my mom would call every day and tell me how worried she was. I just tried to calm her nerves. Because she knew that I was going to go for that kind of career no matter what.
I’ve been asked plenty of times, “How did you get so burned? You wear all of that thick firefighting clothing.” But the type of firefighters that people typically think of are structural firefighters. They wear 50, 60 pounds of gear. A wildland firefighter wears a very thin layer of Nomex clothing and a helmet. A lot of times when you’re going to a fire, you’re hiking for miles and living next to the fire for days. You can’t carry all of that gear with you, especially when it’s 90 or 100 degrees outside.
I remember the ambulance ride to the hospital. They injected me with something and said, “Okay, you’re going to go to sleep now.” And then I woke up, essentially, a month later.
Sixty-five percent of my body was burned, so 65 percent of my body was one giant scab. During the hospital stay, I’d have to go to wound care, which is where they’re taking off all of your bandages and replacing them with new ones, and cleaning up your graft sites and the scabbing. That hurt the worst.
They can treat physical pain with medication. But the mental stress that you endure, there’s nothing they can do for that.
I had a TV in the hospital, and the accident was constantly on the news. They would always show the faces of my three fallen brothers. It was a hard reality to grasp because you’d think, Last time I was awake, I was fighting the fire with those guys. And then you’re seeing them on the news and realizing that they’re no longer there.
Survivor’s guilt is real. Having to look a widow or a parent in the face and try to give them some words to hopefully make them feel better is hard to do. You ask yourself, “What are their thoughts toward me, knowing that I’m the one who survived and their husband or child didn’t?”
There’s a moment where you feel sorry for yourself too. I remember the first time I saw myself in the mirror. I broke down in tears. I couldn’t handle what I saw. Visually, my face has come a long way since then.
There are phases I’ve gone through since the accident. For example, when I was in the hospital, there was just a lot of sadness. Every other day, I was a ball of tears. Then I got out of the hospital and had this phase of anger: Why did this happen to me? Why did it happen to the other guys? And then there was another phase of complete numbness. You’ll have people come up to you and recognize you from being on TV. They’ll tell you how sorry they are for what happened to you and for what happened to the other guys. You’re grateful, but you just have no emotion to return to them.
Now I’ve become a little more social and been able to hang out with some of my friends more. I’m not so closed off to the world.
I lost my finger tips. It drives me nuts knowing that I’ve lost part of my body—and such an essential part. Simple things like popping open a can of soda are so much harder now. But I’ve met plenty of people who have lost an entire hand, or an arm, or both arms, or both legs. And then I think, Wow, losing half an inch off of each finger is nothing compared to that.
I’m usually in therapy five to six hours a day, five days a week. With my injury, a lot of it right now is simply trying to stretch out the scar tissue and trying to get more mobility. I have a therapist who works on my legs, another one who works on my arms, another one who works on my face. It’s definitely painful, but it’s not like you’re dripping with sweat at the end of the day. But yeah, there’s about a billion other things I’d rather be doing.
The hardest thing to know how to respond to is when people say, “There’s a reason you’re here.” There’s a reason my buddies should be here too.
My goal is to be a police officer again. My mom says, “You came so close to death. Do you really want to take on a dangerous job again?” I know the dangers are there, but it’s my calling. No matter how extensive your injury is or how big of a hardship you face or how close you come to death, you still have things that you’re passionate about. You don’t lose those.