Wyoming hunters on the mend from wild fire burns | TSLN.com

Wyoming hunters on the mend from wild fire burns

GUITAR Dakota Knezovich, 17, found strength and calm in playing his guitar in the burn center at University of Utah Medical Center just days after receiving second- and third-degree burns in a wildfire near Bondurant, Wyoming. Photos by Amy Carroll Yenney

TRIO From left, Dakota, Debi, and Steve Knezovich have spent the last 20 days at the University of Utah Medical Center after Dakota and Steve sustained second- and third-degree burns while hunting Sept. 16.

SIDE BY SIDE Steve Knezovich took a photo of the fire when it first started Sept. 15, and by the time he was able to get out, Sept. 16, it had grown to an unmanageable size. Photos by Steve Knezovich

Wyoming hunters on the mend from wild fire burns

by Savanna Simmons

On the opening day of hunting season Sept. 15, Steve Knezovich, of Rock Springs, Wyoming, spotted a small fire a ridge away. He and his son Dakota were hunting deer, rifle season, and had camped at a favorite spot in Bridger-Teton National Forest near Bondurant, Wyoming.

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He tried reporting the fire and was repeatedly disconnected or put on hold. His wife Debi Knezovich was able to get through and report it, relaying GPS coordinates from a photo Steve had taken. They assumed the forest service would handle it, seeing helicopters flying over the area, but not water or retardant being dropped.

The next day, Steve and the rest of the crew were informed they had a three-hour window to get out. Then the fire encroached. The wind came up. The fire was quickly consuming its way across the ravine.

The Knezoviches kept up their heightened pace, on foot, following a few other hunters on horses. They thought they were going to make it out unscathed when two trees that had been burning combusted. Steve and Dakota had no direct contact with fire, but the heat from those trees near them caused so much damage that they were unsure they could get out.

Father and son made their way to the river bank, then the river with flames licking from each side, before finally, painfully, arriving at their pickup, awaited by Steve's brother Paul and nephew Hunter, who had been ahead on horses.

Steve endured the most damage, mostly third-degree burns; his hat had blown off while on his hurried way out and his backpack was on a horse ahead of him. Seventeen-year-old Dakota had his backpack and hat on, which protected him from the inferno off the trees, yielding second- and third-degree burns. Steve is still at the University of Utah Medical Center, expecting at least one more surgery, while Dakota is in outpatient services and has a long road of recovery and physical therapy ahead.

"The way I look at it, when it was going on, it was pretty scary," Dakota said. "I didn't know if we were going to make it out or not, we thought that might be it. The pain is fair, it's not so bad that I can't manage it. Watching what my dad goes through is harder for me than the pain is. Me and my dad have always been close; we keep pushing each other forward."

Steve's level of calm in the horrific situation helped them remain in control and get out safely. He told his son they couldn't run for fear of going into shock.

"He told my son, 'If I go down, you leave me,' and he said, 'Dad, I will not leave you,'" Debi said. "Steve told me, 'Debi, I knew he would die carrying me out if he had to.'"

Dakota left the hospital earlier this week, after initially receiving a treatment of Nexobrid, a burn cream approved in Europe, but still experimental in the United States. He was placed in a pool of hopeful recipients and was the first name drawn out to be eligible for the research program.

"It chemically burns the areas, so he was heavily sedated, and had a pick line put in and nerve blocks," Debi, Dakota's mom, said. "Basically, it turns to gel, and they scrape it all off. They started my son's treatments in 82 hours."

Dakota's passion for music coupled with his dad's calm and positive manner has helped him continually heal. As lead singer and guitarist for the band Wyoming Raised, playing the guitar became in integral part of therapy.

"A friend donated a guitar while they were in town. The therapists were concerned from his wrist and hand, I had never thought of it," Debi said. "I thought he couldn't play the guitar, but it has been a blessing."

Dakota's music has been a source of comfort to his dad, who has already had skin grafts to his back, arm, elbow, and leg, and will also have further grafting to another spot on the back, neck, ear, and left hand.

"They said they expect a full recovery in a year with physical therapy," Debi said. "He probably won't be on the mend until a week or two into November. He has an additional surgery in October. There are some areas they left, his ear and stuff, and they knew he was going into a second surgery, and they wanted to give it a chance, but it is still not doing well."

The cause for the Roosevelt Fire was reported by Wyoming Public Media to be an abandoned campfire. More than 60,000 acres and 55 homes have been consumed by the fire, and it is still burning. As of Thursday morning, the fire was at 85 percent containment, though rain will likely help 100 percent containment.

"We're counting our blessings," Debi said. "They're going into recovery; they're blessed to be able to recover. I could have buried both my husband and my son."

The family has a GoFundMe page, Knezovich Family Fundraiser, and accounts have been set up at Trona Valley Bank and US Bank in Rock Springs.