‘It was a hell storm up here’ : 3 firefighters die in Washington wildfire

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OKANOGAN COUNTY, Wash. — The wildfire scorching a rural Washington State county was unpredictable and fast, an inferno that was hard to dodge. Three firefighters who set out to begin the battle against it on Wednesday fell victim to bad luck and died in the flames.

In this story

  • Four more firefighters were injured in Washington State
  • One firefighter in Washington taken to Seattle hospital with severe burns

“It was a hell storm up here,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said, standing not far from the flames. “The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction, and then they would shift,” he told CNN affiliate KXLY.

The firefighters were on an “initial attack” operation, when they had a vehicle accident. Rogers posited that the flames then overtook them.

“We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters,” said national forest spokesman Mike Williams. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and fellow crewmembers of these brave firefighters.”

The names of the killed firefighters have not been release pending the notification of next of kin, Rogers said.

Four more injured

Four more firefighters have been injured in the blaze near the village of Twisp, but only one was taken to hospital — a 25-year-old man who suffered severe burns.

Late Wednesday, fire crews from multiple agencies continued to battle the wildfire, which had incinerated a few hundred acres of land. “It’s not going out tonight,” Rogers said. “And the winds are still blowing.”

Rising billows of smoke eclipsed the setting sun.

The flames had not reached the town of Twisp, but they were headed in that direction, Rogers said. About 1,000 people there and the town of Winthrop, about 10 miles away, have been evacuated.

State of emergency

At least 11 wildfires were burning as of Wednesday. They have incinerated 235,000 acres of eastern Washington State land, officials say. Three of them, including two of the largest, are burning in Okanogan County. Wildfires have destroyed 50 homes and 60 other structures in the state this year.

And late Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency to free up more funds to cover the cost of fighting the blazes. The flames are threatening 11 counties and four Native American tribes, Inslee said.

Washington already declared a disaster on a state level in June in anticipation of a harsh wildfire season stoked by drought, and it mobilized more than 300 National Guard personnel to assist firefighters.

California burning

In much of the Western United States, firefighters are shouldering similar burden, as about 80 wildfires — as small as a few dozen acres to larger than 100,000 acres — are currently burning from Alaska to Oregon, Idaho to Montana, according to Inciweb. And the military is moving in to help in many of those places, too.

Down the coast from Washington, in California, record extreme drought has hung on for four years, the fires are also bad.

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 firefighters battled 16 wildfires in California, authorities said.

It only takes a single flame to lead whole swaths to burn — a cigarette, a smoldering extinguished campfire, a ricocheting bullet.

A faulty gas water heater caused a wildfire that joined another blaze and, together, they became one of the season’s biggest blazes in northern California.

The Rocky Fire burned almost 70,000 acres, or 109 square miles in 16 days this month.

It forced more 13,000 residents to evacuate and ultimately destroyed 43 homes and 53 outbuildings, authorities said.

Another monster fire, the River Complex Fire, was 20 percent contained on Wednesday after burning 45,477 acres in northwestern California.

Authorities said lightning caused that fire.