TWISP, Wash.— A fast moving wildfire near Twisp, Wash. killed three firefighters Wednesday afternoon as two nearby towns were forced to evacuate.
DNR said there were reports of burn victims around 4:30 p.m. Okanogan Co. Sheriff Frank Rogers said three to four firefighters were burned and transported from the scene. Rogers said the firefighters suffered "non-life threatening injuries."
Around 5:30 p.m., Rogers later confirmed that three firefighters had died. By 6:30 p.m., the coroner was on scene according to Rogers who said the three firefighters were engaged in the initial attack. Brian Schaeffer with the Spokane Fire Department later confirmed that the firefighters were with the U.S. Forest Service. The firefighters were engaged in initial attack operations and were involved in a vehicle accident when it is believed that the fire overtook the vehicle according to officials.
"We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters," said Mike Williams, Forest Supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. "We are working with County and State partners to notify the families of those lost. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and fellow crew members of these brave firefighters."
Four other firefighters were injured. One works with the U.S. Forest Service, two are with DNR and one is a contractor with DNR. At least one of the firefighters was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in critical condition. Jesse Knutson with KING 5 News in Seattle confirmed that the 25-year-old man arrived at Harborview at 5:30 p.m. with severe burns. His grandparents said he was raised in Tacoma, lives in Puyallup, but was based out of Leavenworth for work.
"I was just told that three firefighters died while battling the Twisp fire and four were injured," said Governor Jay Inslee in a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon. "My heart breaks over the loss of life. I know all Washington joins me and Trudi in sending our prayers to the families of these brave firefighters. They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense and I know the community will come together to support them. We will also keep the injured firefighters in our prayers. The conditions throughout the area remain extremely dangerous and I hope residents and visitors will heed evacuation orders or other emergency directions."
Sarah Saarloos is a spokeswoman for Chelan Fire. She struggled to put into words what it meant to lose three members of the team.
Officials said Governor Inslee will travel to Chelan on Thursday. He is expected to land at Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee around 8:00 a.m. Officials said he will drive to the Chelan Falls incident command post at Chelan Falls Park in Chelan, Washington. It is unclear how long he will be in Chelan.
The fire was reported at 1,500 acres on Thursday night. The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said the Twisp River fire grew to 16,000 acres as of Thursday morning. It is threatening 50 to 100 homes as well as the town of Twisp. Around 7:30 p.m., state fire assistance was mobilized to the area of the fire at the request of the Okanogan County Fire Protection District #6. Mobilization specialists from the Fire Protection Bureau have received a request for three structural task forces and three wildland task forces.
Evacuations were ordered shortly after for the town of Winthrop. Residents were asked to head south immediately, and told to be aware of their surroundings and leave carefully.
Winthrop residents were told not to evacuate directly on State Route 20 towards Twisp due to congestion. Instead, they were advised to drive south on Eastside Road past the Smokejumper Base, then proceed southeast on Highway 20/Highway 153 to the Red Cross Shelter at Brewster High School.
The Emergency Management phone numbers are not working at this time. These are alternative numbers to reach the Emergency Operations Center 509-422-2408, 422-2420, 422-2428, 422-2422.
The news of the firefighters death spread quickly across Washington on Wednesday. Hundreds of people began sharing their condolences on social media.
Following they deaths of the firefighters, Gov. Inslee sent out a press release stating he had requested federal Emergency Declaration to secure additional wildfire resources
The governor's request was sent to President Obama through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and pointed out that currently 11 counties and four tribes are affected or threatened by fires. Officials have confirmed that the fires have already destroyed more than 50 homes, 60 other structures, and more than 235,000 acres of land.
"Our communities are still healing from last year's fires," Inslee said. "Tonight we heard the heartbreaking news that three firefighters died while battling the Twisp fire and others are injured. Communities in Eastern Washington are strong and coming together, but need help. The current fires will exacerbate the ongoing housing shortages and economic troubles felt throughout the region. We're doing everything we can to assess the damage and work with our partners to obtain additional federal assistance."
Inslee declared a State of Emergency on June 26th in anticipation of a damaging wildfire season. More than 300 Washington National Guardsmen have been mobilized to assist firefighting efforts. Multiple other state agencies are providing support services ranging from air monitoring to shelter for displaced residents. More than 3,600 homes remain threatened, and the number is expected to rise as increased winds and low humidity are expected over the region.
If approved, the Emergency Declaration would make financial assistance available to the State, eligible local jurisdictions and private non-profit organizations. The assistance could be used to pay for costs of emergency protective measures, emergency response, and debris removal. Federal government would reimburse 75 percent of eligible costs. The declaration would also provide direct federal assistance from federal agencies.