Wyatt Tofte’s family remembers him as a boy who loved fishing and playing video games, who was sweet and polite, and who cherished his beloved dog, Duke. But they’re also remembering him as a hero. Thirteen-year-old Wyatt died Sept. 8 while trying to save his grandmother from the Beachie Creek fire engulfing their home near Lyons, Oregon.
Last week, the teenager’s remains were found in the driver’s seat of the family’s car along with the remains of his beloved dog, Duke, who was sitting on his lap. The remains of his 71-year-old grandmother, Peggy Mosso, were also found in the burned vehicle. Wyatt’s mother, Angela Mosso, survived the fire but is in critical condition in a Portland hospital’s burn unit. His father, Chris Tofte, is distraught and struggling to cope with the loss of his young son while his wife lies in the hospital with full-body burns, Chris’s aunt, Susan Vaslev, told BuzzFeed News.
The West Coast wildfires raging across California, Washington, and Oregon have destroyed millions of acres of land and damaged thousands of homes and properties. They have also left behind dozens of grieving families, some of whom have lost their young children to the relentless flames.
Vaslev, who is acting as the Tofte’s family’s spokesperson, recounted to BuzzFeed News the horrific series of events that the family believes led to Wyatt’s death.
When the power went out at their house on Sept. 8, Chris left to get a generator. At around 4 a.m., Angela, Wyatt, and Peggy awoke to flames all around their house. Angela took her mother, Peggy, to the car in the hopes of driving away from the fire. She then went back to get Wyatt and his dog, Duke. When Angela returned to the car, it was surrounded by flames with her mother inside, Vaslev said.
“She knew in that second they were not going to be able to get the car out of there with all those flames,” Vaslev said. So Angela told her son to take their dog and run from the fire while she stayed back and tried to get her mother out of the car. She wasn’t able to, Vaslev said.
Peggy was immobile, having broken her leg a week earlier. She was awaiting surgery. Angela knew her mother would not be able to run given her condition, Chris told the Statesman Journal in an interview. If Angela wanted to survive the fire, she had no choice but to leave her mother back in the car, Chris said.
During this time, Chris was trying to drive back to the house, but the roads had been barricaded due to the fire. He somehow managed to get around the barricades and drove toward the house as light from the flames illuminated the darkness.
While driving, Chris almost ran over a woman who appeared to be crawling or lying on the ground, Vaslev said. He helped the badly burned woman into his car. She was unrecognizable, wearing only her underwear, Vaslev said. Chris told her that he had to drive farther to get to his wife and son. The woman’s mouth was black and she could barely speak, but she managed to whisper, “I am your wife.”
Angela had walked nearly three miles to get away from the fire, Chris told the Statesman Journal. She wasn’t wearing shoes, Vaslev said, so she had removed her clothes and wrapped them around her feet to protect them from the burning hot road.
“Her feet were burned down to the bone,” Vaslev said.
Chris turned back the car and drove his wife to the paramedics waiting near the blockade, Vaslev said. He then started the desperate search for his son. The fire prevented him from driving back to his house. Search groups of friends and families began looking for Wyatt and posting on social media, and for a while, there was hope that the boy was only missing, Vaslev said.
But on Sept. 9, search and rescue crews found human remains and animal remains in a vehicle near the family’s house, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said. The next day they returned to the area with investigators and located the remains of another person inside the vehicle.
On Sept. 10, the Medical Examiner's Office identified the two people in the car as Wyatt Tofte and Peggy Mosso.
Instead of running from the fire, Wyatt was believed to have returned to the burning car to try to drive his grandmother out of the fire, Vaslev said. He got as far as the end of the family’s 1,000-foot driveway, she said. The car’s tires had burned off in the fire.
“He was a heroic boy, trying against all odds to save his grandmother,” a GoFundMe page for the family said.
“The couple's home and possessions are gone,” reads the fundraising campaign, set up by Vaslev. “The medical costs from Angie's physical injuries will be enormous, plus the funeral expenses for Peggy and Wyatt. Chris and Angie's life will never be the same.”
Angela, known to her family as Angie, had her first skin graft operation on Monday, according to Vaslev. While coping with the intense pain of her burns, she also has to deal with the devastating loss of her mother and her son.
Chris is also haunted by what he could have done to save his son’s life, Vaslev said. “Family was everything to Chris,” she said.
The family is not alone in grappling with the tragic loss of a young loved one in the fires. In Washington state, Jamie Hyland, 26, and Jacob Hyland, 31, lost their 1-year-old son Uriel after the family tried to flee the Cold Springs fire on Labor Day weekend.
The young parents survived, but were badly burned and are currently hospitalized in serious condition, according to a GoFundMe set up by a family member. They have had to undergo surgery to treat the severity of their burns.
Jamie, who was pregnant with what would have been the couple’s second child, also lost their unborn baby, according to KREM 2.
“What my Sister [and] Brother-in-law are going through is unimaginable. Words don’t touch it,” Jamie’s sister, Dawnmarie Baxter, said in a Facebook post. “Their love and faith is one of not just story books. It is the stuff legends are made of.”
Jamie, Jacob, and Uriel had been camping on their remote property in Okanogan County, which does not get phone service, according to the GoFundMe page.
Jacob reportedly woke up during the night and smelled smoke. They quickly grabbed their things and tried to drive away, eventually crashing the car into a fence and continuing their escape on foot until they reached water.
"This is desolate wilderness and they had to go a mile to get to that water, winding up and down through the land, in the dark —the pitch dark," Baxter told KREM 2.
The family was found two days later along the Columbia River banks. All were seriously burned, and Uriel was dead — the first death during the wildfires in Washington.
"My sister, all she's [ever] wanted to be is a mom,” Baxter said. “She wants seven kids. And… in my worst nightmare, I can't imagine fighting for my child's life and losing that battle, even though they fought with everything they had."
A teenage boy also lost his life Sept. 9 after getting caught in the fires in Berry Creek, California. Josiah Williams, 16, was a “good, quiet boy,” his father, Justin Williams, told the Los Angeles Times.
“He was smart, just trying to find his spot in this world,” Williams said.
When the fires spread suddenly near their home last week, Williams said he got in his car to check on nearby relatives. Josiah and his older brother, Jason, were supposed to take their own cars and leave, but the three wound up separated from each other.
Eventually, the family was able to reach Jason, but they never got a call back from Josiah, and they reported him missing. The next day, he was found dead.
Josiah’s aunt, Bobbie Zedaker, told the Sacramento Bee they are still wondering why Josiah didn’t evacuate at the same time as Jason.
“He was supposed to leave when his brother did, but he didn’t,” Zedaker said. “I have no idea why.”
His mother, Jessica Williams, wrote in a Facebook post that she was sorry she “wasn’t there to protect” him.
“I'm sorry I let you down,” she wrote. “I'm so sorry, son, I love you so much and miss you.”