'Unprecedented Cataclysm': Wildfire Kills Three Firefighters In Methow Valley | KUOW News and Information

'Unprecedented Cataclysm': Wildfire Kills Three Firefighters In Methow Valley

Three Forest Service firefighters killed in a wildfire threatening Twisp were in a vehicle accident before flames overran them, state and federal officials said.

The fire in the Methow Valley is one of many burning across Washington, "an unprecedented cataclysm in our state,” Gov. Jay Inslee told news media Thursday in Chelan after being briefed by fire officials.

Four other firefighters were injured Wednesday in the Twisp River fire, including one who was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in critical condition with burns over 60 percent of his body.

The fire prompted authorities to call Wednesday for the evacuation of Twisp and Winthrop.

On Thursday, wildfire managers added that blaze to the Okanogan Complex wildfires, which also forced the evacuation of the towns of Concully and Riverside north of Omak. U.S. 97 was closed north of Omak from Milepost 293 to Milepost 310, the county sheriff's office said.

The three firefighters who were killed worked for the U.S. Forest Service, officials said. Two of the injured are with the state Department of Natural Resources, one is a DNR contractor, and one is a Forest Service worker.

"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," federal and state officials said in a joint statement.

The three who were killed were identified Thursday as Tom Zbyszewski, a 20-year-old student at Whitman College; Andrew Zajac, a 26-year-old Forest Service worker stationed in Winthrop; and Richard Wheeler, 31.

One of the four injured firefighters was identified as Daniel Lyon of Puyallup, who worked for the Forest Service. He was in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center with burns over 60 percent of his body, the hospital said Thursday morning.

The loss of life is one of the greatest ever for wildland firefighters in Washington state. In 2001, four firefighters died in the Thirtymile Fire about 30 miles north of Winthrop.

Complicating the evacuation of Twisp and Winthrop, a fire in North Cascades National Park burned across state Route 20 on Wednesday, causing a rockslide.

State Route 20 was closed from Newhalem to Rainy Pass until further notice, the National Park Service said. Evacuations were ordered for the town of Diablo, Gorge Campground, North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and Ross Lake Resort.

Seattle City Light said it was evacuating employees from its Skagit Hydroelectric Project at Diablo.

"The conditions throughout the area remain extremely dangerous and I hope residents and visitors will heed evacuation orders or other emergency directions,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.

The Okanogan Complex fires that are burning north and west of Omak were caused by lightning on Saturday, the Incident Information System reported Thursday. The Twisp River branch began later. In total, the fires have burned more than 88,000 acres, the Incident Information System said.

A red flag fire warning was in effect for the region with high winds expected Thursday as a cold front pushes in, the National Weather Service said. High temperatures in Twisp and the Omak area were expected to be around 90 on Thursday.

Severe drought is also driving the fires. On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed half the state as being in extreme drought, the second-highest category. All of the state is listed under some category of drought.

The Twisp fire is one of more than a dozen large blazes burning in Washington state. A huge fire over the weekend burned dozens of structures in and around Chelan. Wildfires around that city have burned about 116,000 acres.

Inslee asked President Barack Obama for a federal disaster declaration to bring in more firefighting resources.

In Idaho, officials issued a statewide advisory on air quality because of wildfire smoke from Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

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