Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed Wednesday while battling a wildfire in Washington state when their vehicle crashed and was overcome by flames.
The U.S. Forest Service identified the firefighters Thursday as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.
The men died while fighting the Twisp fire in rural North Central Washington, where shifting fire lines have chewed through thousands of acres.
"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 a statement from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
A fourth firefighter, identified Thursday as 25-year-old Daniel Lyon, was injured in the blaze and suffered burns to more than 60% of his body, according to the Forest Service. He was in critical condition Thursday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
"We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters," said Mike Williams, forest supervisor for 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."
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee called the fires an "unprecedented cataclysm" and said they had "burned a big hole in our state's heart," the Associated Press reported. Inslee previously said in a statement the firefighters who died "gave their lives to protect others."
"My heart breaks over the loss of life," he said. "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."
Three other people, including two Department of Natural Resources employees, were also injured in the blaze.
Okanogan Sheriff Frank Rodgers told KOMO-TV that the wind was "blowing in every damn direction" Wednesday.
"The bottom line is this is hell in here," he said.
President Obama was also notified of the firefighter deaths, the White House said in a statement.
"On behalf of a grateful nation, the president's thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans," White House spokesperson Eric Schultz said.
Firefighters and aircraft battle blazes in rural Central Washington Thursday.
The wildfires prompted authorities to evacuate entire towns on Wednesday. Evacuations expanded Thursday.
A dispatcher for the Okanogan County Office of Emergency Management confirmed to BuzzFeed News that evacuations were taking place in the towns of Winthrop and Twisp, which lie in Washington's rural interior about 180 miles from Seattle. The town of Riverside was also ordered to evacuate Wednesday night.
Thursday, Okanogan County issued evacuation orders for the town of Tonasket, which is home to about 1,000 people.
Eli Hamblet, a lawyer who evacuated his home in the town of Riverside Tuesday, was volunteering for the Okanogan County Office of Emergency Management. He told BuzzFeed News that he spent Tuesday night saving horses.
"It was honestly terrifying," he said. "The sky was red. There's smoke everywhere. It's very thick smoke. It's really not good."
The Seattle Times reported that about 3,000 people had been evacuated.
However, Hamblet said it was hard to pin down exact numbers because Winthrop and Twisp are western-themed resort towns filled with tourists, meaning the actual numbers could be higher than official population counts. The situation was further complicated, Hamblet said, because fires were cutting off evacuation routes.
"The main issue is the pass, the main access to the area, is closed due to the fire," he said.
The towns were being threatened by the Okanogan Complex fires, which as of Thursday afternoon had burned more than 88,000 acres.
The collection of wildfires burning in the same general region were about 20% contained Wednesday, but had been delivering "extreme, wind driven runs," according to authorities at the scene.
Conconully — a town of roughly 210 people about a hour from Twisp — had already been evacuated Tuesday.
Hamblet said parts of several other communities had also received evacuation orders.
Collectively, the 10 largest active fires in Washington have burned more than 300,000 acres.
The Chelan Complex fires made up the largest active blaze area in Washington Wednesday. Those fires had burned nearly 70,000 acres and were 50% contained.
Other large fires in the state include the North Star fire, at 45,632 acres, the Wolverine fire, at 40,357, and the Kettle Complex fires, at 39,404 acres.
Inslee on Wednesday asked for a federal emergency declaration to deal with the blazes.
Inslee's declaration was sent to the White House and seeks funding to cover the cost of fighting the wildfires. The request also notes that fires have destroyed 50 homes and 60 other buildings. FEMA approved emergency funding Thursday.
Though the fires have been particularly deadly, data shows that as of Wednesday the fire season generally has been comparable to other years.
National Interagency Fire Center data shows that the total number of fires is currently 144% of what it would normally be at this time of year.
In the graph below the blue line represents the total number of fires. The red area represents above normal numbers, the gray area is normal, and the green area is below normal.
However, the total acres burned — represented below — in the Northwest was below average until Wednesday.
The data compares the fire seasons of the last 10 years, and covers the entire region, not just Washington. It also shows a spike this week in the total number of acres that have burned.
The fires come as the entire state of Washington suffers from drought.
As of August 11, 100% of the state was experiencing at least moderate drought, and 99% was in a severe drought. Extreme drought, the second most severe category, was affecting 42.51% of the state.
Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Jim Dalrymple II at email@example.com.
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