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Growing Washington wildfires are 'an unprecedented cataclysm,' governor says

Growing Washington wildfires are 'an unprecedented cataclysm,' governor says
A wildfire burns behind a home in Twisp, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

There was very little good news in eastern Washington state fire country Thursday, as first responders and state officials mourned three firefighters who died in the line of duty and fretted about bad weather and growing blazes.

Under smoke-filled skies the sickly yellow color of a fading bruise, Gov. Jay Inslee called the current conditions "an unprecedented cataclysm in our state. There are 390,000 acres burning. Last year was bad with 250,000 acres.

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"We are mustering all of the resources that can be safely deployed to fight these fires," including more than 3,000 firefighters and 26 aircraft, Inslee said at a news conference in front of Chelan County Fire District No. 7.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell described Thursday as "one of the highest-risk days of the fire season, because of the winds expected this afternoon."

Inslee also spoke movingly about the firefighters who died Wednesday near the small rural town of Twisp. He called on the state's residents to thank the first responders who are risking their lives and cooperate with their orders as they work to protect the drought-plagued region.

"We know that these fires have burned a big hole in our state's heart with the loss of these three firefighters," he said. "We know the smoke is still there and thick. But it's not going to obscure their incredible act of courage. These are three big heroes protecting small towns."

The U.S. Forest Service identified the deceased firefighters late Thursday as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.

They were employees of the Forest Service based in the area and had been deployed to the Twisp fire, about 150 miles northeast of Seattle, on the eastern, more arid side of the Cascade Mountains.

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 an account by Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers that was provided by the Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

A fourth firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, was seriously injured and is being treated at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, said Mike Williams, forest supervisor at the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Lyon, who lives in Puyallup, was listed in critical condition Thursday morning, hospital officials said. He remains in intensive care with burns to about 60% of his body. The hospital said the public is welcome to send the firefighter notes of encouragement.

"We are mourning the loss of Tom, Andrew, and Richard and are in connection with and closely monitoring the recovery process of Daniel," Williams said in a statement.  "This was a tragic incident, and our hearts go out to their families, friends and colleagues."

Incident commander Chris Schulte, who has worked the fires for nearly three weeks, said conditions Thursday were more dangerous than earlier in the week. Winds of 35 to 40 mph are expected all afternoon, and crews will have difficulty getting close to the fire.

"We should have more rate of spread and more acreage burned than yesterday," said Schulte. "We will have a spread event today. We are prepared to work in as close to it as we can. But this kind of activity does not allow us to get in real tight."

There are more than 100 large fires burning out of control in 15 states.  Military personnel from Joint Base Lewis-McChord are expected to join the Washington state effort by the weekend.

In addition, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, his agency is reaching out to Canada and Australia for assistance, "to provide relief for the crews we have now. The teams are doing an excellent job to prioritize where we can be effective with resources, sharing those resources, especially our aviation assets we have available here."

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As of Thursday morning, officials said, 1,400 residents in the Chelan area were under some level of evacuation order. At least 39 houses and 28 outbuildings have been destroyed. All of those numbers are expected to rise.

Inslee said his "heart breaks over the loss of life. They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense."

A spokesman for President Obama said that the president had been updated on the fires in the West, "including the tragic loss of three Washington state firefighters who selflessly battled these fires. On behalf of a grateful nation, the president's thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans."

Inslee on Wednesday requested a federal declaration of emergency for the state.

Some summer camps near the smoky region have been evacuated, with parents from Seattle making late-night drives to pick up their children. Livestock are being moved too. Fairgrounds in Okanogan County are filling up with animals, the Emergency Management Department said.

Early Thursday, the National Weather Service continued to issue a red-flag warning and said "critical fire weather conditions" would continue through Friday. A cold front forecast to arrive Thursday could bring wind gusts up to 50 mph, the agency said, potentially toppling power lines and "leading to new fire starts."

The agency said there is uncertainty in the forecast, however, and that thunderstorms could also arrive Friday.

The 2015 fire season is taking an intense toll nationwide. Fires currently burning have scorched more than 1.2 million acres in the Lower 48 states, mostly in the Northwest, and dozens of homes have been destroyed.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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