As soon as Daniel Lyon jumped out of the wrecked fire engine in Twisp, he was burning alive.
“It was the loudest, brightest thing you’d ever seen,” he said of the wall of flames. “It sounded like a freight train all around you.”
Lyon crawled up the ravine to the dirt road and took off running, toward the wildfire safety zone. That, he says, was the easy part.
“All you had to do at that time was run,” Lyon said. “But now starts the time where I really have to start actually fighting for my life.”
The fight started with an airlift from Central Washington to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where Lyon spent three months in the burn unit, including a month in a medically induced coma. Almost four years later, he’s winning the fight. Lyon is back to his old self, he says. He’s sharing his experiences with firefighters and burn survivors. And he’s put years of full-time therapy and roughly 100 surgeries behind him.
“It feels like I graduated high school all over again,” he said.
Although he enjoyed the rush of fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service, Lyon’s first love always has been law enforcement. He looked up to his two uncles, who worked for Tacoma Police Department and Washington State Patrol.
“You can truly make an impact on somebody’s life every single day,” said Lyon, who grew up in Puyallup. “Making that kind of difference is what really appealed to me.”
So, in high school, he did ride-alongs with police officers around the state. After graduating from the University of Washington, he started applying to agencies all over. Although he managed to secure a reserve position in Milton, other departments denied his applications for full-time work citing a lack of life experience.
Then, his training officer suggested wildland firefighting as a way to gain transferable skills and collect a paycheck. After learning more about the work, Lyon was hooked.
“You watch those videos and they show guys rappelling out of helicopters, they’re showing smokejumpers jumping out of planes, they’re showing hand crews digging line in really remote country,” he said. “All of that really appealed to me.”
Lyon ranked his top choices upon applying for the Forest Service, and he landed his No. 1 location: Winthrop, in Central Washington. He lived there at the fire station in the summer of 2015, alongside his brothers, as he calls his fellow firefighters. They did everything together, like surrogate siblings in the absence of their real families.
“You build an incredibly tight bond,” Lyon said. “We might not share blood, but deep down inside it feels like we share blood.”
The 2015 fire season was slow leading up to the call about Twisp River Road, near Lyon’s station. It started as a small fire, creeping up to some houses. Lyon and three other men — Thomas Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler — were tasked with setting up sprinklers around the homes, to prevent them from burning down.
Then, the wind shifted.
“It was literally like someone poured gasoline from the sky onto that fire,” Lyon said. “The trees erupted in flames. The brush erupted in flames. It was like a massive wall of flames coming toward us.”
The firefighters drove through the fire, but crashed into a steep ravine due to a lack of visibility from the unrelenting smoke and flames.
Lyon threw the door open and jumped out. After crawling up to the road above, he looked behind him into the burning forest. None of his colleagues followed.
“That’s an image that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “Not seeing those guys come out of those flames was and is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with.”
After his colleagues cut off his boots and started administering treatment on the scene, Lyon’s body went cold. Shock was setting in, and he knew that wasn’t good.
“They injected me with something, and I went to sleep,” he said.
Lyon woke up a month later at Harborview. It took another week before he realized what was happening.
Brutal weeks followed, he says: “There’s nothing good about being in a burn unit.”
Lyon vividly recalls daily burn care in the so-called tank room — a bright white, sterile space with a drain in the center of the floor and a stainless-steel showerhead.
“The medical table and that floor would basically just turn red from your blood and your scabs. It was a horrible, horrible experience,” Lyon said. “Once I got out of there, out of that tank room, it would be an instant relief. But then all you could think about was dreading having to go back and do it the next day.”
Lyon scoffed at his new friend, another burn survivor, who told him things would eventually get better: “I remember being disappointed in him because it felt like he lied to me at that point.”
Back then, Lyon couldn’t move his fingers or hands. He fixated on whether he’d be able to shoot a gun again — a qualifying factor for fulfilling his dream in law enforcement. The future looked hopeless.
But the first time Lyon looked at his face in the mirror was the first time he really started to cry. “I wasn’t the guy I knew just three weeks before,” he said.
His face was blood red, covered in wounds and fresh scars. Part of his ears were amputated.
“I’m never going to have a chance of being in a relationship again,” he thought to himself. “I’m never going to have a chance of having a wife someday.”
Then, his mom told him about a girl.
THE FIRST DATE
Lyon’s nerves ran high before his long-awaited first date with Megan Lanfear. He worried that head-to-toe bandages and the compression mask on his face would make it hard to make a good first impression.
“That was probably one of the most nerve-wracking dates I’ve ever been on,” he said.
But soon, he was swept away amid dinner and a movie, and the rest is history.
“It was incredible,” Lyon said, smiling. “She looked at me like I wasn’t burned. She’s never treated me any differently, and that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
That first date came roughly six months after Lyon’s accident in Twisp — in the thick of his grueling recovery.
While Lyon was unconscious in those first weeks at Harborview, Lanfear was among the many visitors who stood by his side. Lyon didn’t know that until his mom told him. Soon after, the two started talking every day, thanks to Lyon’s iPad — and the doctors who left the tip of one index finger bandage-free. He was only allowed a couple hours of screen time at the end of each day, but he looked forward to that time.
“I mean, 24 hours a day it was pretty much miserable,” he said. “But it was able to be cut down to 22 hours a day.”
Once Lyon was out of the hospital, he moved to his parents’ home in Montana, so they could help with his recovery. His relationship with Lanfear endured the distance, and now they’re looking to build a life together, starting with a new home.
“Everything we do is always a lot of fun,” Lyon said, “and I don’t see that changing at all.”
After years of fighting for his life every day, Lyon’s plans haven’t changed.
“The fire didn’t burn those goals out of me,” he said. “I still want to go climb mountains, and ride motorcycles. And, be a police officer.”
To get there, he’ll continue to fight through daily challenges. Among them, the anxiety triggered by annual wildfires.
The worst of it started two summers ago, when Montana was engulfed in one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. Driving back from a surgery in Seattle, Lyon felt trapped despite knowing that he wasn’t in danger. He eventually flew back to the Pacific Northwest to escape the conditions.
Today, he’s learned how to better manage his anxiety. Even so, he’s always prepared.
“I’m always thinking of every escape route possible to avoid a fire,” he said. “I’m the first guy who knows where the fire exit is.”
His mental health is one of the many topics he covers with other firefighters, traveling to departments and sharing his story. The top line in his talks: mindset.
“You can be in the best shape of your life and be the healthiest person on earth physically,” Lyon said. “But if you don’t have the right mindset, you’re going to have a hard time recovering from an injury or really any hardship in life.”
He says he carried that mindset with him every day since before the Twisp River fire, and he will carry it with him as he continues to pursue a career in law enforcement — a path that will almost certainly put him in harm’s way again.
“I looked at that fire as though it was that criminal that was trying to take my life,” he said. “Mother Nature at that point wanted me dead and was going to burn me alive unless I gave it my all.”
Because of that mindset to survive, Lyon — now 28 — isn’t afraid to face the next fight of his life. He’s back to spending time with his brothers at the Milton Police Department. And when he hops in the passenger seat of a squad car, he forgets all about his aches and pains.
And that passion is what got him through the toughest times of the past four years, something he shares with people staring down a similar road to recovery.
“Now,” he says, “I’m the guy to tell them that it is going to get better.”
FOLLOW LYON'S JOURNEY
To get updates on Daniel Lyon's continued journey, follow him on Instagram at @forged_by_fire_apparel.