Michigan native among 3 men who died battling Washington state wildfire
A Michigan native and fourth-generation firefighter is among three men who died battling a Washington state wildfire.
Richard Wheeler died Wednesday when flames consumed their crashed vehicle outside Twisp, in north-central Washington. The 31-year-old from South Haven was a seasonal worker who hoped to become a permanent U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter.
This was Wheeler and his wife Celeste’s second year living in the Washington community of Wenatchee.
The Rev. Joanne Coleman Campbell, his pastor at Wenatchee First United Methodist Church, says he fought fires to save money for college then realized he could dedicate his life to something meaningful.
“He fell in love with that and decided he wanted to make it his career,” Coleman Campbell said.
His mother, Karen Morey, told Grand Rapids station WOOD-TV, Wheeler “died a hero.” Relatives say he returned to Michigan in the offseason to pursue a natural resources degree at Grand Valley State University.
Wheeler, Tom Zbyszewski and Andrew Zajac — the three men who died Wednesday — were typical of the wildland firefighters who start out as fresh-faced college kids making as little as $12 an hour then find themselves hooked on the work.
Four others were injured in the canyon, one critically. But their firefighting brothers and sisters had little time to mourn as raging fires forced entire communities to flee their homes 60 miles away.
Nearly 29,000 firefighters — 3,000 of them in Washington — are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought-and heat-stricken West, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California. Thirteen people have died.
There are more firefighters on the ground this season than ever before, and the U.S. government is spending more than $150 million a week on fire suppression, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
At the news of Wheeler’s death there was an outpouring of condolence messages on social media.
“A great guy and American Hero (proud to have called him my nephew!),” Russ Morey wrote on Karen Morey’s Facebook page.
Karen Morey responded to posters with a message about her son.
“Thank you all my heart is broken, but he is with God and his dad and his grandparents,” she wrote. “I will miss my son more than word's can say. He was my hero..love you and miss you, But I will see you some day my Ricky.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.