By Ann Jantz/Rocket Miner/Via Wyoming News Exchange
ROCK SPRINGS – It started out like any other ordinary hunting trip. Steve Knezovich and his son Dakota were out in the Bridger-Teton National Forest wilderness doing what any other hunter does at this time of year — looking for game.
Instead, what they saw on opening day was a small fire in the distance, among the trees and steep hillside. Steve tried to call it in to report the fire but kept getting disconnected and put on hold. He then called his wife, Deb Knezovich, who managed to call in the fire, giving the GPS coordinates of it from a photo of the fire her husband took on his cell phone.
Later that night, Steve and Dakota watched helicopters fly over the area. They thought the fire was being dealt with.
They did not know the fire was continuing to grow, pushed by ever-changing and gusting winds. And it was near the trailhead leading back to their truck.
Their ordeal was about to begin.
Steve and Dakota Knezovich were lucky, they admit. They became caught by the Roosevelt Fire, which as of Thursday has grown to over 50,000 acres, destroyed numerous homes in the Hoback Ranch area near Bondurant, and is still only 30 percent contained.
When asked how they escaped the fire with their lives, Deb Knezovich said her husband and son walked out, on their own, encouraging each other every step of the way.
“Both of them thought they were going to die,” she told the Rocket-Miner in an email Wednesday, sent from the University of Utah burn unit in Salt Lake City. “Steve told Dakota if he goes down, to leave to make sure he keeps going and gets out. Dakota said ‘I won’t leave you.’”
As Steve and Dakota attempted to walk out to their truck, they could see the fire on their right-hand side. The trail was clear until the wind shifted, and suddenly the two were surrounded by fire. Deb said her husband and son described the scene as flames everywhere, with trees exploding around them. It happened fast.
“Dakota wanted to run and his dad said ‘We are hurt; we need to move steady so we don’t go into shock,’” Deb recounted the story they told her.
The two made it to the river bottom. Deb said Steve remembers his son screaming they were going to die. Steve also was afraid they were not going to make it to safety; he thought he was going to have a heart attack or go into shock and Dakota would die trying to carry him out. Dakota said he didn’t think his dad was going to make it out but was the one that encouraged him to keep going, talking them through the ordeal.
Dakota and Steve eventually made it back to their truck. Meeting them as they walked out of the burn area were Steve’s brother, Paul Knezovich, and Steve’s nephew, Hunter Knezovich, as well as two ambulances. Dakota and Steve were transported first to St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson Hole and then were transferred to the University of Utah Medical Center.
“Their love for each other and their determination to save the other got them through it,” Deb said. “They lived and kept going to save each other.”
Both men did not exit the deluge of flames without injury. Deb said they both suffered second- and third-degree burns, with Steve’s being mostly third-degree.
Burns are classified into four categories. First-degree burns are the least serious and fourth-degree burns are the most acute and life-threatening.
Second-degree burns consist of burn damage to the dermis, which is the layer of skin beneath the outer-layer epidermis. Wounds appear red or pink and become blistered and swollen. Healthline.com states this type of burn can be “quite painful” due to exposed nerves.
Third-degree burns, also called full-thickness burns, destroy the entire epidermis and most of the dermis and appear deep red or white and generally without blisters. Destroyed tissue will need to be removed, and skin grafts are necessary for the wounds to heal. Pain is limited due to the nerve damage caused by this type of burn; instead, the pain may come from the first- and second-degree burns surrounding the more severe burns, according to healthline.com.
Dakota was burned on his left hand, arm, shoulder, neck and face. Steve was burned on both hands, shoulder, left arm, calf, face, neck, back and the back of his head.
Deb said her husband’s burns were deeper, and he has already had surgery to remove the dead skin. Skin grafting has also been done on his leg, arm and back, she added.
Deb said Dakota was accepted into a research program which is used in Europe but which has not yet been approved in the United States. Once they agreed to the treatment, his name was entered into a lottery. Deb noted the odds are 50/50 you will be accepted into this program.
Her son was the first patient from the University of Utah Hospital Burn Center to beat the odds and make it into the program.
She said the process is supposed to reduce the need for surgical removal of dead tissue and grafting of the skin.
Nexobrid, as the new treatment agent is called, is an enzymatic agent used to dissolve the damaged tissue.
“Time will tell,” Deb said about the new treatment. “He could still require surgery.”
Dakota will be in the research program for two year.
Steve’s burns, being the more serious, will require the most care and recovery time. Deb said her husband’s left hand suffered the worst damage, including burned tendons, and a polyurethane layer was put on the wound to help the blood vessels and tissue to grow back. Once that occurs, skin will be grafted onto the wound.
Deb said her husband is currently bed-ridden to allow the skin grafts to adhere. His left hand must remain immobilized four-to-five weeks before doctors graft it.
“The doctor said it was worse than they had originally hoped and would require a longer recovery time. It will be a few months with surgery and grafting, and up to a year with physical therapy for a full recovery – barring no infections or other complications,” she said. “They are also watching Steve’s ear and neck; they may require grafting, too.”
Deb noted Steve will have additional surgeries in the upcoming weeks and months.
The one thing Deb said she can’t believe is how supportive the community has been during her family’s crisis. Fundraisers have been planned and a GoFundMe page has been set up to help the family meet this financial burden.
Accounts have also been set up at Trona Valley Bank and US Bank in Rock Springs.
“I really want my family and friends in the community to know we are very humbled and grateful for all the love and support that has been shown us. We are truly blessed,” Deb said.
It will be a long road to recovery for Steve and Dakota Knezovich. Despite this life-changing and harrowing experience, the injuries and the many months – even years – filled with treatments and surgeries they will have to endure, they are determined to make a full recovery. Deb is sure of it.
Most of all, she is grateful to have the two men in her life back, alive.
“I just feel blessed my guys made it out alive, and we will get through it together,” she said. “They are grateful they made it out; they worry more about each other than themselves. Their stories sum up why I am so convinced they are still here and why I am confident they will recover, if not for themselves, for each other and for the love of family and friends.”
Deb admits there is still much emotional and physical healing that will have to occur, but their strength has already been tested. They will come out all right on the other side of it.
“I’m so proud of these men.”