Downers Grove native one of three killed in Washington wildfire

SHARE Downers Grove native one of three killed in Washington wildfire
SHARE Downers Grove native one of three killed in Washington wildfire

A Downers Grove native was one of three firefighters killed while battling a wildfire in Washington State on Wednesday.

Andrew Zajac, 26, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, and Richard Wheeler, 31, died in the blaze. Four others were critically injured.

All three men were part of a specialized crew that went into dangerous areas as fast as possible to examine a scene and report back to commanders on what could be done, according to Bill Queen, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, where the three worked.

But flames driven by shifting winds overtook their crew after they crashed a vehicle Wednesday while fighting a wildfire outside Twisp in north central Washington.

Zajack, a Downers Grove native, had worked for the U.S. Forest Service since April 2014, when he spent seven months fighting wildland fires in Mimbres, New Mexico, according to his LinkedIn page. He then began working in Winthrop, Washington in April of this year.

He graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he studied biology. He also got his Master of Science degree in biology at the University of South Dakota in 2014.

“Everyone at Downers Grove North High School is very sad to learn about the tragic death of Andrew Zajac, who graduated from our school in 2007. He was a wrestler and football player and also played the cello. We extend our deepest condolences to his family,” Downers Grove North spokeswoman Jill Browning said.

Zajac’s mother Mary is a senior pastor at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles. His father Jim has a dental practice in Downers Grove.

Mary Zajac’s church posted a statement about her son’s death: “We grieve the loss of Pastor Mary and Jim Zajac’s son, Andrew, while fighting wildfires in the state of Washington. We have no additional information at this time. Please keep them in your hearts and prayers.”

The tragedy cast a pall in Washington state and brought to 13 the number of firefighters killed across the West this year during one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record. At least 10 fires were burning in north-central Washington’s Okanogan County alone, where entire towns have emptied as residents headed for safety.

As conditions deteriorated, emergency officials urged the evacuation before dawn Friday of areas on the northwest outskirts of the community of Okanogan, but they didn’t immediately know how many people were affected.

The call came hours after similar orders hit Tonasket, a community of 1,000 people, and its surrounding area, about 60 miles northeast of where the firefighters died.

The deaths underscored the danger of this fire season. Nearly 29,000 firefighters — 3,000 of them in Washington — are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought- and heat-stricken West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California.

Contributing: AP

The Latest
One step would be to adjust the deadline in the city’s heating ordinance to a date earlier than June 1.
Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), who doubles as the casino committee chairman, said he is not at all certain that the votes are there to approve the companion agreements. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. I don’t know if we can get it done by Friday. But that’s their goal...We might need more time. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
The shooting happened at the Warwick Allerton Hotel, officials said.
Democrats across the nation are hoping to use the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that could signal the overturning of Roe v. Wade to bring voters to the polls. That’s a trickier strategy for Valencia in the secretary of state’s race.