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Penticton man fighting U.S. wildfires

You can hear the strain in Tracey Bonneau’s normally cheery voice as she talks about her son Colt Jack.

You can hear the strain in Tracey Bonneau’s normally cheery voice as she talks about her son Colt Jack, who is fighting forest fires in Washington state.

“I just messaged him this morning to stay hydrated and think clearly,” said Bonneau, adding that she has asked her 19-year-old son to contact her at least once a day.

“I have just been saying prayers and staying calm, because I know he must be exhausted. I know he is working hard alongside everyone else.”

Fighting forest fires is dangerous work, a fact made clear by the deaths of three firefighters last Wednesday near Twisp, Wa. Tom Zbyszewski, Rick Wheeler and Andrew Zajac were likely overtaken by flames after their vehicle crashed while heading out to attack a blaze threatening the town.

Bonneau said the death came very close to home for Colt, who knew Zbyszewski.

“He was one grade above Colt in high school. It is a very small community there,” said Bonneau. Colt, a member of the Penticton Indian Band and grandson of former Grand Chief Archie Jack,  grew up in Penticton, but when he was 15, he went to stay with his father in the U.S., graduating from Liberty Bell High School, near Twisp.

“He has not said anything to me about being exhausted, he is just going to work,” said Bonneau. “I know that all the firefighters that are involved, they just have to do their job. They don’t have time to mourn. They just have to continue on to save homes and keep people safe.

“It is a lot of hard work. Mentally and physically, they are up for a challenge. Things could change any minute.”

Bonneau said Colt fought fires last summer as well, completing his firefighting training with the Department of Natural Resources, and is working with skilled people.

“I am remaining positive. His dad is a very skilled firefighter and has years of knowledge. His dad is very careful and so I am confident,” said Bonneau, adding that Colt spent a lot of time in both communities and after graduating, returned to Penticton to take a welding course at Okanagan College.

“Upon completion of his welding course, he went straight down to the fires,” said Bonneau.  “A lot of people in the community know him. He has a heart of gold. A very kind young man and a very hard worker. I just feel really good that he has a good set of life skills that he can be of help to people and work hard.”

Hard work is the order of the day. Bonneau said Colt seems to be constantly on the move, with at least one transfer happening at 3 a.m.

“That is a safe time to travel. It’s just when they rest and then they have to be on the road. They have to be up by 6 a.m. and starting their day again,” she said, noting that Colt was working the Chelan fire, then he got moved to Winthrop the day after the tragedy happened, and is now back at Chelan.

“He doesn’t have much to say to me, other than he has to get back to the fires. He doesn’t really have much time to talk,” said Bonneau. “The fire travels extremely fast. It can change direction with no notice. That is the part that worries me, if the wind shifts.”

Bonneau said she does her best not to think negative thoughts, concentrating instead on how capable her son is.

“It is hard to believe that he is a man, because yesterday he was just a little baby,” said Bonneau. “The one thing I know he has going for him is that he can remain calm and do his job.”


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