- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - The heat of last summer’s deadly Twisp River blaze has been replaced with the snow of a Montana Christmas, but for Daniel Lyon Jr., the sole firefighter to survive the tragedy, it’s like it happened yesterday.

Reached Saturday at his parents’ retirement home outside Missoula, the 25-year-old reflected on his progress a month after being released from Harborview Medical Center and his struggle to come to terms with the wildfire that killed three others.

All it takes is the smell of wood smoke or burning toast or the sight of the number 19 - the date the accident happened, Aug. 19 - to trigger a flood of crystal-clear recollections.

“I remember everything about that day,” Lyon said in a telephone interview. “I remember jumping out of the truck, I remember running, I remember the fire, I remember going in the ambulance.”

Lyon is spending four hours a day, five days a week in physical therapy to recover from the third-degree burns that covered nearly 70 percent of his body. It’s grueling work, he said, but the mental effort is even harder.

“Remembering what happened, knowing that there are buddies I lost,” he said. “The only question I have is how I made it and those guys didn’t. More than anything, I wish I could have turned around and seen those guys running behind me.”

Strong wind abruptly fanned the wildfire near Twisp in Okanogan County that Wednesday, part of Washington’s worst fire season on record. It sent walls of flame and smoke toward the team of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters, obscuring the road and forcing them to retreat blindly down a dirt road until their engine ran off an embankment, a joint federal and state report found.

Killed were firefighters Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, 20, who died of smoke inhalation and burns.

Lyon staggered away from the engine and was immediately engulfed in flames, the report found. He said he remembers nothing from the time he was placed in the ambulance until he woke up in the Harborview intensive-care unit.

Lyon was released from the hospital Nov. 19, three months to the day after the accident.

He’s doing his best to recover from the injuries that left him with scarring on his face, scalp and all four limbs. He has had 11 surgeries, including multiple skin grafts, and now needs to work on loosening the tight scar tissue that has limited movement of his elbows and knees.

The damage to his hands has been the most challenging, Lyon said. The tips of all 10 fingers had to be amputated because they were so badly burned, and his range of motion is severely limited.

That concerns Lyon, who had just finished training to become a reserve police officer in Milton in Pierce County and hopes to resume a career in law enforcement.

“Losing the tip of your index finger - it’s what you need to shoot a gun,” he said. “I still have a lot of hope I’ll be able to go back into law enforcement.”

For now, though, he’s spending time with his father, Daniel Lyon Sr., and mother, Barbara Lyon. His parents, who also own a home in Puyallup, both took leaves of absence from their jobs to become their son’s full-time caretakers.

“Each day I’m able to do a little bit more on my own, but it’s a slow process,” Lyon said.

Lyon visited the site of the Twisp accident on his way to Montana. It was difficult to see it, especially the three crosses that marked where his friends died, he said.

“It brought me to tears,” Lyon said. “For three months, I wasn’t able to pay my respects at all. It gave me a chance to say a prayer for them.”

Lyon was also able to meet with the firefighters’ families, which was both difficult and healing, he said.

This holiday, he’s spending time outdoors, taking walks with his black-and-tan coonhound, Ozark, who was “really happy” to be reunited. And Lyon said he continues to draw strength from the outpouring of support from the public - and from dozens of firefighters and police officers who have reached out to help.

In years past, Lyon would have made a Christmas list, but this year, he hasn’t asked for anything, he said. He’s mostly grateful for all that he has received.

“Just to have my life here and knowing that I’m still breathing and can walk on my own two feet is the greatest gift I need right now,” he said.

___

Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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