A small wildfire in north-central Washington exploded unexpectedly into a horrific firestorm, trapping 21 firefighters and two civilians in the middle of a raging blaze that killed four and injured at least six others, authorities said Wednesday.
Huddling under small shelter tents as the blaze swept through, four firefighters were unable to survive the intense heat of the fast-moving blaze, one of three wildfires roaring through Washington's dry, sunbaked forests.
"The conditions early in the day were somewhat quiet; it was a smoldering ground fire. But as the day progressed, with the temperatures, wind events, it all contributed to a blowup situation that was just beyond their expectations," said Pete Soderquist, district fire management officer in the Okanogan National Forest. "We post lookouts, we had aerial observers, but the conditions just progressed so quickly that I believe they were caught unaware."
Fire officials said temperatures would have had to exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit to penetrate the small, aluminum-and-fiberglass shelter tents the young firefighters drew over their heads and backs to shield themselves from oncoming flames.
But Soderquist said there would have been no alternative but to wait for the fire to pass. "No matter how bad it is inside the shelter, it's 10 times worse outside. Once you deploy, you stay put," he said.
Last year's firestorms scorched 7.5 million acres across the country and cost $1.7 billion, and federal authorities say the fire season now underway could be even worse. With 10 active large fires blazing in five Western states, fire officials say an unusually hot, dry summer has left Western forests and range lands dry and vulnerable.
"The fire behavior we saw back in May was indicative of what we normally see in July. So we're about two months ahead of conditions," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rick Acosta said. Wildfires are blazing over more than 12,000 acres in Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, with three major fires in north-central Washington.
The deadly Thirty Mile fire in a rugged canyon south of Winthrop, Wash., had grown to 8,700 acres by Wednesday afternoon, and a highly trained, multi-agency firefighting team flew in to begin devising a strategy to control it.
"Right now we're taking the approach of standing by and watching it, hoping we might be able to get some work done on a strategy to fight it," Forest Service information officer Debbie Kelly said. "It's a very remote area. There are no communities, homes or structures threatened at this point."
Fire officials said a campfire was the likely cause of the blaze, first discovered Monday night in the Chewuch River Valley, near the town of Twisp. The fire had consumed about five acres, and firefighters were engaged in what officials described as a "mop-up" operation Tuesday morning when things took an unexpected turn for the worse.
With midday temperatures soaring near 100 degrees, the wind picked up and the air attack supervisor radioed ground workers about "some radical changes in fire behavior, wind, buildup of the fire and smoke column," Soderquist said. Within hours, the fire grew to 2,500 acres.
Firefighters raced downhill toward the river to escape the onrushing flames, but 23 people were trapped, 13 of them so severely that they had to deploy shelter tents, authorities said.
A five-member crew appeared to have been in the worst position, trapped on a hillside as the fire raced down toward them. Four members--Tom L. Craven, 30; Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18; Devin A. Weaver, 21; and Jessica L. Johnson, 19--were found dead. The fifth member of the team, 21-year-old Jason Emhoff, suffered burns over 30% of his body and was airlifted to a burn center in Seattle, where he remained in serious condition Wednesday.
His father, Steve Emhoff, said he spoke with his son at the hospital. "He did ask me a little while ago about the outcome of [the others], but then he turned around and said, 'I don't want to know.' So I think he knows."
Three other firefighters were taken to hospitals with burns or smoke inhalation. Two campers in the area were treated and released.
"We've had a tragedy that's of almost indescribable proportions," said Sonny O'Neal, supervisor of the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests, as he prepared to fly to Yakima, Wash., to meet with the victims' families.
Soderquist, his voice breaking, credited a brave stand against the fire that led to 19 trapped people surviving.
"Once a decision is made to deploy a fire shelter, the situation is very stressful," he said. "Firefighters need to maintain control of their motor skills while they're in a situation that requires all of their wit and training in order to pull the fire shield out of their packs, get it shaken out, filled with air, get themselves in an area that's suitable for deployment and get down on the ground as quickly as they possibly can."
He said there was no way to say why some survived and others didn't, until an investigation is complete. "Every situation is different, every location, every micro-site on the ground is somewhat different," he said.
At least two other fires were burning out of control Wednesday elsewhere in north-central Washington. One blaze near the town of Carlson had claimed at least 1,880 acres and was threatening at least 50 structures, in addition to livestock, forests and grazing land.
"We are having some problems. This is a fast-moving fire on steep terrain in an area with limited access and a long haul for our water supply," Forest Service spokeswoman Melissa Archer said. She said a few families have voluntarily evacuated their homes, "but most of the families are remaining."