Roosevelt Fire: The beginning as told by the two hunters who were nearly burned alive

SUBLETTE COUNTY, WYO – When Steve Knezovich and his son Dakota first saw what would become the baddest wildfire in the nation right now it was torching a few trees, no more than three acres. They noticed a wisp of smoke while hiking above timberline to their hunting horses.

They did what they could. They took readings and logged the GPS coordinates. They got to a place where they had reception and made the call. That was Saturday, September 15.

Steve’s injuries were worst. He’s undergone extensive skin grafting.

They wouldn’t know it, but things were about to go from bad to worse that evening. From their camp they saw and heard helicopters flying nearby. They assumed someone was on it.

By morning, the fire had grown to 500 acres. The Knezoviches and the other hunters they were with decided to break camp and get out of there. As they were preparing to leave, a pair of Forest officials stopped by to inform them they were going to be closing off the trailhead within a day or two so, yes, it was best to get a move on.

Everyone helped pack and saddle the horses. The rest of the group left on horseback. Steve and Dakota walked out, trailing behind. Before long they ran into the Forest Service officials again. This time they were told conditions were worsening. They had about a three-hour window to get out.

Day 1 aerial recon shows Roosevelt Fire just getting going. It would ballon from 5 acres to 500 in the next 24 hours. In 48 hours it would be 5,000 acres.

And they could see it. Flames across the ravine were shooting up into the sky. Father and son quickened their pace, casting frequent glances at the approaching fire.

With no warning, a gust of wind came up and carried fire across the ravine into a pair of nearby trees. They were so dry from months of no rain they literally exploded, Steve remembers. The heat was intense, unbearable. Both men thought they were burning but neither was actually on fire. It felt like they were boiling from the inside.

They ran for a nearby river and relief.

Beginning of the Roosevelt Fire. Photos taken by the Knezoviches—the hunters who called it in.

Steve and Dakota thought it safer to traverse the river bottom the rest of the way out, just in case. Both were hurting and neither was sure they would make it out alive. Flames danced on either side of them, the forest crackling with fire.

At the trailhead, Steve’s brother and nephew were there waiting at the truck. Concern turned to action when they saw the condition of Steve and Dakota. Both had been badly burned.

The group drove to the highway where an ambulance met up with the injured men for transport to St. John’s Medical Center. After assessing the extent of their injuries, hospital staff arranged a life-flight to University of Utah’s Burn Center in Salt Lake City.

Both men suffered second- and third-degree burns. Steve’s condition was worse. He eventually had to undergo surgery and skin grafts. His hand was burned down to the tendons. His neck and back were scorched as well.

Dakota’s surgery.

Dakota, 17, is in constant pain but healing.

It’s pain management, a high risk of infection, and mounting medical bills from here on out for the Knezoviches.

Every day, people arrive to visit the family. They bring food, flowers and fellowship. Steve’s wife, Debi, is by her husband’s side. She said she feels blessed, knowing it could have been much worse, and she is extremely thankful for the outpouring of friends, family, and people she never knew who have come forward in support.

A closed Facebook group (Steve and Dakota Medical Info) already has more than 650 members keeping track of Steve and Dakota.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the family with medical expenses.

A real community has started to form at the hospital where Steve and Dakota are being treated.
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