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Hundreds gather in Wenatchee to honor fallen firefighters

Firefighters salute as a U.S. Forest Service truck goes past before a memorial service for three firefighters killed in a wildfire, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, in Wenatchee, Wash. Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Thomas Zbyszewski died Aug. 19 in a fire near Twisp, Wash. (AP)

Hundreds of people streamed into Wenatchee Sunday to attend a memorial for three fallen firefighters who lost their lives battling the Okanogan wildfires this summer.

Fire crews dotted the Toyota Town Center, showing patches from local outposts, as well as those from as far away as Abbotsford, Canada, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, just 20 years old, were on the front lines near Twisp on Aug. 19 where fires had expanded by more than 100 square miles nearly overnight.

Strong winds fueled the wildfires when flames overtook a vehicle the fire crew was riding in. It crashed, killing the three men, and injuring four others. One man, Daniel Lyon, is recovering at Harborview Medical Center with severe burns over 60 percent of his body.

The families each spoke about how their sons, from very different backgrounds, came together for a common cause: protecting their community, and the wilderness they loved.

Tom Zbyszewski’s parents remembered their son, who was supposed to return to Whitman College next week for his junior year, as the most loving man they both knew.

Richard Wheeler was a fourth-generation firefighter from Michigan and avid outdoorsman.

Andrew Zajac was from a small city in Illinois and moved to Winthrop with his wife after getting married last year.

Mary Zajac, Andrew’s mother, said she was grateful for the immense outpouring of support from those who fought fires alongside her son.

“Before now I’ve never looked closely at the effects of wildfires. But now I see that fires destroy thousands of acres, and yet leave small spots the size of a home, or a power plant or a town water supply completely untouched,” said Zajac to a crowd of firefighters. “And it looks at first like some kind of divine intervention, but it’s not. It’s the product of human courage and sweat, and now tears. I take comfort knowing that our son was involved in such noble work, because you are miracle workers in this world.”

The Twisp River Fire, which claimed the lives of the three, is now 98 percent contained as crews mop up hot spots. Three other fires making up the Okanogan Complex have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in northeastern Washington and are 25 percent contained.

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