Three newly hired firefighters, one veteran killed in wildfire
Seriously injured man flown to Harborview
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, July 11, 2001
WINTHROP -- A wall of flame crashed down on firefighters huddled in their silver emergency shelters in a narrow canyon in the north Cascade Mountains, killing four of them in the deadliest wildfire since 1994.
The fire, apparently sparked Tuesday by an unattended campfire, quickly spread through stands of 80- to 100-year-old trees in an area left vulnerable by months of drought and unusually high temperatures.
The Forest Service identified the dead as Tom L. Craven, 30, of Ellensburg, the squad leader; Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, of Yakima; Devin A. Weaver, 21, of Yakima; and Jessica L. Johnson, 19, of Yakima.
Craven was described as a veteran on the fire lines. The other three were described as "recent hires."
It happened suddenly. Firefighters were mopping up the small fire in the Chewuch River Valley when the flames exploded, engulfing 2,500 acres of fir and pine and trapping 23 people behind the flames.
One five-person crew ran downhill toward the Chewuch River. They climbed into their tent-like emergency shelters that firefighters call "shake and bakes'' just as the flames overran them.
Four were killed, and their leader was hospitalized with serious burns. It was the worst loss of life since 14 firefighters were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994.
"This is a great tragedy and loss that is felt by all firefighters and agency employees everywhere,'' said Sonny J. O'Neal, supervisor of the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. "Firefighters are a family, and any time a firefighter is killed, grief is felt by all.''
An elite team of U.S. Forest Service investigators arrived Wednesday to investigate.
In all, Tuesday night's fatal wildfire trapped 21 firefighters and two civilians in a narrow canyon of the Chewuch River Valley, firefighters said.
Three of those firefighters and the two civilians had minor injuries. They were treated at clinics in Brewster or Winthrop and released.
A fourth firefiighter, Jason Emhoff, 25, of Yakima, was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he was in serious but stable condition Wednesday. He suffered burns over 25 percent of his body.
There were no plans to resume fighting the fires until national experts arrived to help. Those 600 firefighters weren't expected to be deployed until Thursday, Forest Service officials said.
"This is a great tragedy and loss that is felt by all firefighters and agency employees everywhere,''
O'Neal said. "Firefighters are a family, and any time a firefighter is killed, grief is felt by all.''A national investigation team was dispatched to the scene to look into the tragedy.
Local fire crews were pulled off the lines Wednesday after officials deemed it to dangerous for them to continue. "It’s time to take a timeout and rethink what happened," O’Neal said.
Pete Soderquist, a firefighting supervisor, said local crews needed relief from national teams both because of the nature of the fire and the emotional trauma they had suffered.
"This fire is very complex. As you might imagine with the situation we’re in now, we welcome their arrival," he said.
Steve Emhoff, father of the seriously injured firefighter at Harborview, said in an interview from the hospital that his son was leading a crew of five firefighters who suddenly found themselves trapped by flames in a valley.
As the fire raced toward them, the five ran downhill toward the Chewuch River, and finally crawled inside their tent-like emergency fire shelters as the flames overran them.
"He was the only one who made it out,'' Steve Emhoff said of his son. Jason, an Eagle Scout, emergency medical technician and a firefighter with the Forest Service the past two years, was most seriously burned on his hands, thighs and face, his father said.
"He knew what he was up against,'' he said. ``I think he handled himself quite well.''
Authorities believe the flames that claimed the four lives whipped back over the firefighters sometime early Tuesday evening.
The fire was one of at least three in central Washington that have burned more than 6,000 acres. For months, fire officials in the region have worried that lack of rain this year could result in a severe fire season.
Initially the firefighters who died were listed as missing and a search party had been deployed when they could not be reached by radio. Forest spokeswoman Debbie Kelly confirmed late Tuesday night that the firefighters had perished.
They were among 40 firefighters in the area when the flareup occurred. The crews thought they had the situation well in hand until the weather started heating up Tuesday afternoon, which caused winds to pick up and the firefighters lost control, Kelly said.
The fire was a 10-, then 100-acre blaze near the 30-Mile Campground. The campground is about 20 miles north of Winthrop and close to a popular trail along the Chewuch River that hikers use to get to the Pasayten Wilderness.
But as morning turned to afternoon, temperatures rose, and the relative humidity dropped. That made conditions fit for what firefighters call a "blow up," said Soderquist, the Forest Service supervisor.
"Conditions earlier in the day were somewhat quiet. It was a smoldering ground fire," Soderquist said.
The fire crew was sent into the narrow Chewuch Canyon for "mop up."Lookouts were posted, and there were flights overhead to look for trouble. But conditions changed too quickly, Soderquist said.
A blow up occurred.
"A fire goes from relative calm and under control to just totally out of control," he said. "It gets up in the crowns (of the trees) and develops its own weather. ... The winds are just extraordinary."
The firefighters tried to flee to a safer area, then got into emergency shelters with which they are equipped. The four who died all were in shelters.
"No matter how bad it is in the shelters, it’s 10 times worse outside," Soderquist said.
Soderquist said the firefighters made a heroic effort to save themselves and others. The two civilians squeezed into one-person shelters with a firefighter, he said.
"We’re very sorry that people died," Soderquist said, breaking into tears. "But a lot of people made it."
She said she did not have exact details on how the scenario played out, but there were earlier reports that some of the firefighters took shelter in small foil-like emergency tents designed to ward of heat. The four who died were among them.
Several other firefighters, including Emhoff, suffered burns and smoke inhalation.
The blaze, 22 miles north of Winthrop, started as a series of small fires totaling about five acres. But the flames, fed by winds and tinder-dry fuel, spread to about 2,500 acres across the steep, heavily forested terrain by late afternoon.
"It's a very intense fire due to the dryness of the weather and the fuels," said Kelly. "It's so dry it's going very quickly. We're getting weather and fuel conditions that we normally get in August."
Kelly had no estimate of when the blaze, known as the 30-Mile Fire, would be contained and brought under control.
The 30-Mile Fire was northeast of another blaze, the Libby South Fire, which started earlier near the town of Carlton, about 10 miles south of Twisp.
The Libby South Fire was estimated at about 1,200 acres, and steep, rocky canyons with virtually no escape routes made it difficult to fight, officials said. It was reported about 40 percent contained Tuesday night.
A third fire, burning about 80 miles to the southeast of the Libby Creek Fire, near Grand Coulee Dam, blackened at least 70 acres of sage and grass.
No houses were immediately threatened in the Libby Creek Fire, but about 50 houses are in the area. Thirteen families voluntarily evacuated the Libby Creek area Monday, said Art Tasker, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
At least 400 firefighters were at the scene of the Libby South Fire Tuesday.
Six hundred firefighters were expected to arrive Wednesday, said Shannon O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest.
Planes flew over the fire to try to find the safest places to attack the blaze while keeping firefighters from getting stuck in a box canyon or draw with no way out, Tasker said.
The fire picked up intensity Tuesday afternoon as temperatures increased and fuels dried out.
Crews had 20 wildland fire engines and 20 conventional fire engines. Four air tankers and three or four helicopters were dropping water and retardant on the flames.
The fire was reported at about 2:20 p.m. Monday and grew from 35 acres to 150 acres in about 45 minutes. It had grown to 400 acres by 8:30 p.m. and 1,000 acres at 11 p.m.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation. No lightning strikes were reported in the area.
Volunteer firefighters early on the scene reported hearing an explosion.
"I'm not sure if it was the trees exploding, or something in the trees," said Twisp Fire Chief Dwain Hutson.
The department said the fire was burning on state, federal and private land.
It was declared a project fire, meaning local authorities called for backup outside the region, and a fire management team was called in to coordinate.
The team is based at Liberty Bell High School, between Twisp and Winthrop.
A 70-acre fire, reported about 2 p.m. yesterday, burned on a hill northeast of the town of Coulee Dam.
No injuries were reported and no buildings were threatened, but the fire was headed in the direction of the several communications towers, he said.
The cause of the fire had not been determined.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.