Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Wash. State Mourns Firefighters

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Wash. State Mourns Firefighters

Article excerpt

TWISP, Wash. - The firefighters - members of a specially trained unit that is sent into danger ahead of everyone else to size up a wildfire - rushed up a narrow, winding gravel road with steep hills on either side. It proved to be a deathtrap.

Their vehicle crashed, and before they could escape, flames rolled over them, killing three firefighters inside and injuring four others nearby, one critically, authorities said.

The tragedy Wednesday night cast a pall in Washington state and brought to 13 the number of firefighters killed across the West this year during one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record.

The blazes have "burned a big hole in our state's heart, Gov. Jay Inslee lamented Thursday, describing the outbreak as an "unprecedented cataclysm.

"These are three big heroes protecting small towns, the governor said, urging residents to "thank a firefighter.

Fire officials with notebooks and cameras walked the hills and banks near Woods Canyon Road outside Twisp, investigating how the disaster happened. Authorities gave few details, shedding no light, for example, on the crash, other than to say that it was not the accident itself that killed the victims, but the fire.

The deaths happened in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, where a series of blazes covering close to 140 square miles had merged. The flames burned an undetermined number of homes and triggered orders to about 1,300 people in the outdoor-recreation communities of Twisp and Winthrop to evacuate.

"It was a nightmare, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. "Everything was burning. He added, "We know it was a firestorm in there.

All the dead were U.S. Forest Service firefighters. The agency identified them as Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31. Their hometowns weren't immediately released.

They were from highly specialized crews that go into dangerous areas as fast as they can to examine a scene and report back to commanders on what needs to be done, said Bill Queen, a firefighting spokesman.

"It just kind of exploded and they got caught in a burn over, said Queen, referring to what happens when conditions change so rapidly that flames overtake firefighters. …

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