Among the many lethal threats to the men and women who battle wildfires in the West are shifting winds. In an instant, flames licking away from them can reverse course with massive power, overwhelming those in their path.
That’s what happened to three firefighters who were killed in Washington state Wednesday while fighting one of the hundreds of wildfires that are burning through millions of acres in the West.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers told the Wenatchee World newspaper the firefighters were part of a wildfire response team Wednesday afternoon five miles west of Twisp, Wash. The winds suddenly shifted and the fire turned on the crew, which was unable to escape as it trapped them on Woods Canyon Road, KCPQ-TV reported.
“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,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a release late Wednesday night.
“We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters,” said Mike Williams, Forest Supervisor on 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.”
“We know the firefighters that were injured and the firefighters that were killed in this thing, they were up here fighting an active fire,” Rogers told the news station.
Four injured firefighters suffered from burns and were transported from the scene. One worked for the Forest Service, two worked for the state Department of Natural Resources and one was a DNR contractor, the news station reported.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) released a statement about the deaths Wednesday night, saying “all Washington joins me and Trudi in sending our prayers to the families of these brave firefighters.” Inslee said the conditions throughout the area are “extremely dangerous,” advising everyone there to “heed evacuation orders or other emergency directions.”
In an e-mailed statement, the White House said President Obama directed the administration to stay in touch with state and local officials to provide federal assistance as necessary, the Associated Press reported.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, the president’s thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
Inslee requested a federal Emergency Declaration afterward for additional resources to cover costs related to wildfires burning in Eastern Washington.
In his statement, Inslee said officials confirmed that the fires destroyed more than 50 homes, 60 other structures, and more than 235,000 acres of land.
The fire forced residents from Twisp and towns around the area to evacuate. Gordon Wielandt told the Wenatchee World he was undecided about whether to stay, but would likely spend the night in nearby Carlton, hoping the fires would subside by morning.
“It’s just really sad to find out some firefighters passed away,” Wielandt told the newspaper, looking at the firefighters awaiting deployment in the parking lot. “I see these guys and I hope I’ll see them again, even though I don’t know them. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It just makes you think how short our lives are.”
More than a hundred large fires are blazing across seven states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Thousands of homeowners have been evacuated across the region and hundreds of homes destroyed as the deadly combination of high temperatures, wind, drought and lightening strikes have turned some areas into tinderboxes.
The Defense Department said Tuesday that it will mobilize 200 active-duty service members to help fight the fires.