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A year later, firefighter burned in Washington state regaining sense of normality in Montana

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Daniel Lyon Jr. suffered massive burns last summer in the Twisp River fire, which killed three other firefighters. His recovery has been long and painful. ÒLiterally every single thing is harder now,Ó Lyon says. But heÕs getting better, thanks to help from physical therapists like Pam Nation, shown here stretching the skin grafts on his neck to improve his range of motion. 

KEN LAMBERT, Seattle Times

Daniel Lyon Jr. strides up the sidewalk leading to the gym, arms swinging free in a short-sleeved blue T-shirt, a broad smile crossing his burn-scarred face.

Gone is the plastic mask that protected the skin grafts on his cheeks and chin. Gone are the heavy jacket and thick gloves that shielded his torso and hands.

Nearly one year after Lyon was burned over almost 70 percent of his body in Washington state’s deadly Twisp River wildfire, his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes have grown back, he’s got a girlfriend – and he’s forging a new future.

“Each day, I’m able to do something that I couldn’t do before,” says Lyon, 26, the sole survivor of the wildland blaze that claimed the lives of three other firefighters, Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski.

But the days and months since Aug. 19, 2015, have been harder than even Lyon likes to acknowledge. His buddies’ deaths have weighed heavy on his heart. And coping with his injuries has become a full-time job, an unexpected – and sometimes dreaded – occupation that will stretch years ahead.

“I’ll probably be in and out of surgeries for the next 10 years,” says Lyon, who’s scheduled for an operation this month to improve movement in his right hand. “It’s almost like you can’t see the end of the tunnel. It’s like learning life all over again.”

Lyon was hurt and his friends killed trying to fight a wind-whipped fire outside Twisp in picturesque Okanogan County. The blaze exploded on a hot, dry Wednesday afternoon in Washington’s worst fire season on record. The crew members on Engine No. 642 were trying to escape down a winding dirt road when they ran into blinding smoke, crashed their rig and were overtaken by fire, a joint state and federal report found. The blaze was sparked by tree branches chafing a power line, an investigation showed.

Lyon staggered away from the wreck, engulfed in 800-degree flames, and made it back to the road. A fellow firefighter saw him emerge from the inferno.

“He told me, ‘It looked like God plucked him out of the flames of hell,’ ” recalls Lyon’s father, Daniel Lyon Sr.

Lyon was burned almost everywhere. His feet and ankles were spared only by his boots. His eyes were protected by sunglasses, though the lenses were nearly melted. His right wrist bears the precise outline of the watch he was wearing.

“I still have the watch. It still works.”

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Lyon, 26, moved in with his parents, Daniel Lyon Sr., and Barbara Lyon, who retired early to care for their son at their home in Stevensville.

‘You’ll hear the scars’

Before the fire, Lyon was a young man from Puyallup living on his own, training to become a police officer and spending as much time as he could hiking, snowboarding and riding his motorcycle down winding rural roads.

Now, he lives with his dad, 62, and his mother, Barbara, 59, who retired early to care for their son at their home in Stevensville. Lyon’s days are packed with doctors’ visits and therapy appointments, endless hours spent coaxing his stiff limbs to move and his scarred skin to heal.

“How are the legs feeling?” asks Josie Stokken, the physical therapist who works with Lyon several days each week. She has him flat on his back on a machine called “The Reformer,” knees bent, a small blue ball clutched between his heels, all aimed at increasing the flexibility and motion that the fire stole.

“They’re good,” says Lyon, who has three different therapy sessions this Monday. “This is a short day.”

Other days include the occupational therapy that is slowly retraining his hands to write. And they include massage therapy, which sounds like a spa treatment but is actually a painful session of unrelenting pressure to break up adhesions, internal bands of scar tissue that have formed beneath his skin.

“You’ll hear the scars, they can crack sometimes,” he says. “Yeah, it hurts.”

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After the fire, Lyon lost 40 pounds. He’s regained some, but he hopes to build back up to his firefighting weight of 174 pounds. He can’t get too bulky, he says, or the muscles will stretch his scars. 

The injuries have forced Lyon to change his expectations. Doctors amputated the tips of his 10 burned fingers, leaving bulbous knobs – and likely ending his chances of being a cop.

“I know a lot of opportunities have been eliminated,” Lyon says. “I probably won’t be able to be a patrol officer.”

Instead, he says he’ll rely on the bachelor’s degree in business he earned in 2013 from the University of Washington, hoping eventually to pursue a related field in law enforcement. He says he’s sharing his story, in part, to create new opportunities for himself.

“I do worry about what the future’s going to hold,” he says. “I want to go back to work.”

Because Lyon was a U.S. Forest Service worker, his medical bills are covered by the federal workers’ compensation program. He also receives 60 percent of his pay, which was a bit above minimum wage.

“If I had a family or a mortgage, it would be really hard.”

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Daniel Lyon Jr. jokes with hand therapist Jennifer Helmer. She says he’s making good progress, although his right hand is still far less flexible than his left. 

In the meantime, Lyon is doing all he can to reclaim the life he had before. He’s been rafting on the river near his parents’ home, though it’s hard to hold a paddle. He recently went camping at the Watershed music festival with his girlfriend, Megan Lanfear.

“I try to think of myself as my old me and just a regular human,” he says.

Lanfear, 19, has helped with that. He remembers when he first looked in a mirror in the hospital: “My biggest fear was ‘How am I going to get a relationship?’ ”

Lanfear says she and Lyon had known each other for years. (She’s the friend of his best friend’s sister, they explain.) But something blossomed after he was hurt. She got the message he’d been in a fire and went straight to the hospital. When she could finally see him, she says, she recognized him immediately, despite the bandages.

“For me, it’s always been his eyes,” Lanfear says. “I was just happy to be with him. I just realized what it would be like without him.”

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Daniel Lyon Jr. walks Ozark, the family dog, near his parents’ home in Stevensville.

‘We’ll be pulling for him’

Of people burned as badly as Lyon, only about half survive, said Dr. Nicole Gibran, the burn specialist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle who treated him.

Lyon needed 11 skin grafts, leaving permanent waffle-patterned scars on his arms and legs. Inhaling the smoke and flames damaged his airways. When his hair grew back into the wounds on his scalp, he was told to shave it every day to prevent infection.

“He might have gotten a little angry with me,” Gibran said. “It’s very painful.”

The latest research shows that burn recovery is a chronic condition, she says.

“We know that patients still have issues with strength and with their psychological health and their chronic pain and their scarring two, five, maybe 10 years after injury,” she says. “I think he’s right where we would expect him to be on the recovery trajectory.”

But that trajectory has hardly been smooth. Lyon’s parents describe the months since they got the terrible phone call saying their son had been burned. First, no one knew whether he’d survive. Then, when he did, Lyon came home angry and desolate, though he tried hard to hide it.

Weeks of counseling helped.

“For a while, he wouldn’t answer messages or calls,” Barbara Lyon recalls. “Now, he’s almost back to Daniel.”

As Lyon has healed, his attitude has rebounded, says Lanfear, his girlfriend.

“He’s very positive,” she says. When young children stare at Lyon in public or when strangers stop to ask what happened, he answers with a smile and an explanation, she says.

“It’s been a big deal to continue on with his life,” she says. “He’s very well adjusted to it.”

A turning point was a memorial service in May for the firefighters killed in Twisp. Lyon spoke before the crowd of family, friends and fellow firefighters, and he was nervous.

“When you have to look a widow in the eyes, you go blank.”

But the speech was a comfort, say Richard and Jennifer Zbyszewski, whose 20-year-old son, Tom, was among those lost.

“It was so touching,” says Jennifer Zbyszewski, 56, of Carlton, Washington. “He spoke and talked about each one of the guys individually. What he remembered about Tom. He could not have done a better job or a more helpful thing for the families.”

Even as they struggle with the death of their son, the Zbyszewskis say they’re grateful Lyon is alive and hope he can put aside any guilt at surviving when his friends did not.

“We’ll be in Daniel’s corner for the rest of this life,” Jennifer Zbyszewski said. “If there’s anything we can ever do to help him, we will. Even if we never hear from him again, we’ll be pulling for him.”

Support from the families, the firefighting community and the larger community have been crucial to Lyon’s recovery, doctors – and his parents – say.

He’s received hundreds of cards from around the world and dozens of patches from police and fire departments across the U.S. There were so many patches, a quilting group in Twisp sewed them into a blanket and bed-runner.

“It means a lot,” Lyon says.

He’s heard from other burn victims, too. Lyon appreciates their encouragement, but finds it too difficult to join support groups or speak at too many conferences, despite multiple invitations.

“It’s easier for me to relate to people who haven’t been burned,” he says.

Slowly, he’s improving. The sight of a fire engine doesn’t inspire flashbacks anymore and he’s stopped reacting to the number 19 – the date of the fire. But when a helicopter flew over his parents’ house recently, hauling water to help stop the Roaring Lion fire raging in the Bitterroot Valley, Lyon shuddered.

“I got some goose bumps running up and down my spine.”

As the anniversary of the Twisp fire approaches, Lyon says he’d like fire agencies, homeowners and the general public to think twice about sending fire crews into danger to protect rural homes, a view shared by Tom Zbyszewski’s parents.

Last year, 68 firefighters died while on duty in the U.S., including the Twisp crew, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“Looking back on it, if it were up to me, most of these wildfires, they need to let them burn if lives are at risk,” Lyon says. “Once you lose a firefighter, they ain’t coming back.”

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