Connecting state and local government leaders
At least 235,000 acres have burned in the drought-stricken state, amid a devastating summer of wildfires.
Flames overtook and killed three U.S. Forest Service firefighters Wednesday afternoon who had been battling a fast-moving wildland fire outside of Twisp, Washington.
The Twisp River Fire started on Wednesday. Located approximately 110 miles northeast of Seattle in the eastern foothills of the North Cascades mountains, the fire is threatening an area with about 1,200 homes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Thursday evening, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials identified the three deceased firefighters as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.
Zbyszewski, the youngest of the three men, was a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. His parents spoke with CBS News on Thursday. "He was always our hero," said his mother, Jennifer Zbyszewski. "And we would rather have him not be a hero and be home with us today."
Authorities believe the firefighters perished after they were involved in a vehicle accident.
A fourth firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, was badly injured. On Thursday he remained in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. According to information posted online by the hospital, Lyon was in critical condition with burns to approximately 60 percent of his body.
“We are mourning the loss of Tom, Andrew, and Richard and are in connection with and closely monitoring the recovery process of Daniel,” Mike Williams, forest supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said in a statement.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, Gov. Jay Inslee said: “My heart breaks over the loss of life.”
The status of three other firefighters who were also initially said to be injured was not immediately clear on Thursday night.
The tragic situation has unfolded as Washington endures one of its worst wildfire seasons in recent history. Inslee submitted a request on Wednesday asking President Obama to declare a federal emergency for the state because of blazes affecting nearly a dozen counties.
As of Thursday morning, there were 17 uncontained large fires burning in Washington state, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
On Wednesday night, FEMA authorized the use of federal funds to help cover the cost of fighting the Twisp River Fire.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for about 2,600 people in and around Twisp and nearby Winthrop, according to FEMA. Both of the small towns are situated in the scenic Methow Valley. In photos and video posted online Wednesday and Thursday flames could be seen burning on hillsides close to houses, as thick smoke filled the sky.
Of the 1,200 homes in the area, about 95 percent are primary residences, FEMA said.
Evacuation efforts were complicated by the fact that State Route 20, the only route heading west out of the towns, through the North Cascades, was closed due to another wildfire.
The Goodell Creek Fire, which caused the road closure, was burning near the towns of Diablo and Newhalem. The fire crossed State Route 20 yesterday afternoon, causing a rockslide, according to the National Parks Service.
Both Diablo and Newhalem are owned by Seattle City Light. The municipal utility operates three hydroelectric dams in the area on the Skagit River.
On Wednesday, City Light evacuated employees from Diablo, and said that flames were burning across the road from an office building and east of the Gorge Dam powerhouse.
City Light is operating the dams in the area remotely, but transmission lines had been shut down, disrupting the delivery of electricity and potentially costing the utility $100,000 per day.
This year’s fires in Washington have been exacerbated by parched weather, and last winter’s unusually low snowpack. The entire state is currently experiencing either severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In response to extraordinarily hot and dry conditions in the state, Inslee issued a state of emergency for all 39 counties in Washington on June 26.
The governor’s request for the federal emergency declaration said that 11 counties across the state were currently contending with more than 40 fires. All told, the request said, 39 confirmed residences have been destroyed, along with 60 other structures, while over 3,600 other homes remain threatened by flames.
More than 235,000 acres of land have burned.
Several hundred soldiers and National Guard troops, along with at least two Blackhawk helicopters have been mobilized to help firefighters working to control the blazes.
Washington was also hit hard by wildfires in 2014. Last July, a massive fire destroyed dozens of homes in and around Pateros, a city located about 30 miles south of Twisp.
Inslee noted on Wednesday: “Our communities are still healing from last year’s fires.”
Wednesday’s events did not mark the first time wildland firefighters had been killed in the region.
In July 2001, four U.S. Forest Service firefighters died amid the Thirtymile Fire, as it burned in the Chewuch River Canyon, about 30 miles north of Winthrop.
This story was updated on Thursday at 9:55 p.m. EST to include the identities of the firefighters involved in Wednesday's incident.
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.
NEXT STORY: The Future of Hobby Drone Rules Is Undetermined