Three firefighters died and four others were injured while battling a wildfire in northern Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday evening.
The firefighters, confronting a blaze in Okanogan County that prompted evacuations in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, about 150 miles northeast of Seattle, "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.
The three firefighters who died were Forest Service employees based in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Of the four firefighters injured, one was employed by the Forest Service, two worked for the state Department of Natural Resources and one was a contractor with the department.
"My heart breaks over the loss of life," Inslee said in a statement. "They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense."
Inslee also requested a federal declaration of emergency for the state, saying 11 counties are battling more than 40 fires in all. Lightning strikes and gusty winds are expected to spark and spread more blazes in the coming days, his request said.
Hours earlier, the approaching fire led officials to tell residents to evacuate the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, whose combined population is about 1,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest figures.
On Tuesday night, the nearby town of Conconully, home to about 200 people, was also ordered to evacuate because of fires.
"It is really bad out there. The fires have just exploded," Angela Seydel, a spokeswoman for the Okanogan County Department of Emergency Management, told the Associated Press. "We're just directing everybody to head south."
The department called for more evacuations Wednesday night, telling people in the flats north of Omak, a city about 30 miles east of Twisp, and in Riverside, a nearby town of more than 200 people, to flee immediately.
"The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction," Rogers told local news station KXLY-TV.
As people leave their homes, they have been moving their livestock to safer areas. Fairgrounds in Okanogan County are filling up with animals, the Emergency Management Department said.
The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for a swath of Washington that includes the Okanogan valleys and highlands, saying that "critical fire weather conditions" would continue through Friday. A cold front's arrival on Thursday night is expected to create winds with gusts up to 45 mph and possible thunderstorms, the weather service said.
This 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.
That means fire departments are stretched thin, and when they call on nearby jurisdictions for help, little -- if any -- is available.
Dozens of wildfires are burning in the Pacific Northwest, and there are not enough firefighters to battle all of them. The U.S. military is sending 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., to the fire lines this weekend.
Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.