3 U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed near Twisp

Smoke from an approaching wildfire looms over a home near Twisp, Wash., Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. Authorities on Wednesday afternoon urged people in the north-central Washington town to evacuate because of a fast-moving wildfire.
Smoke from an approaching wildfire looms over a home near Twisp, Wash., Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. Authorities on Wednesday afternoon urged people in the north-central Washington town to evacuate because of a fast-moving wildfire. AP

Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed Wednesday afternoon when winds shifted and they became trapped while fighting a wildfire near Twisp.

“I was just told that three firefighters died while battling the Twisp fire and four were injured,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “My heart breaks over the loss of life … We will also keep the injured firefighters in our prayers.”

As many as four other firefighters were injured.

Harborview Medical Center spokesman Brian Donohue said late Wednesday the hospital had received one firefighter, a male in his 20s, who is a burn victim in critical condition. The victim was expected to remain in critical condition through the night, Donohue said.

The tragedy comes as about 3,000 people in Twisp and Winthrop were ordered to evacuate because of a fast-moving fire that started Wednesday.

“It’s bad, that’s the bottom line,” said Angela Seydel, a spokeswoman at the Okanogan Emergency Operations Center in Okanogan.

“The winds are nasty, and as this has spread, we’re having to send everybody south. We’re just trying to get everybody out of harm’s way and safe.”

Fire officials didn’t immediately know how many homes or acres the new fire had consumed by early Wednesday evening.

“We know some homes have been destroyed, but we don’t know how many,” Seydel said. “The fires have been so volatile right now, we just can’t get a count.”

A Red Cross shelter had been set up at Brewster High School, and the local Home Depot had opened its parking lot to temporary camping for the displaced, she said.

The blaze apparently was sparked about five miles outside of Twisp off the Twisp River Road, Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Keith Comstock said. The blaze was terrain driven, heading in a general north-by northeastern direction, generally toward Patterson Lake and the Sun Mountain Lodge, a resort and spa west of Winthrop.

“There’s a lot of rural homes off of the Twisp River Road, but there’s really only significant development in the general direction its headed, off of Elbow Coulee Road,” Comstock said.

The fire in the Methow Valley ignited as Okanogan County emergency officials already were dealing with four wildfires burning northwest of Omak. Those lightening-sparked fires, known collectively as the Okanogan Complex, had spread across nearly 31,000 acres as of Wednesday morning and forced the temporary evacuation of the town of Conconully, population 200.

By Wednesday afternoon, evacuation orders there had been lifted for all but one road near the small town, said Josie Williams, spokeswoman for the Okanogan Complex incident command. But already, the fires had destroyed three homes and 10 other structures, and posed a threat to another 115 residences, state fire officials reported.

About 230 firefighters and 20 aircraft, aided by Canadian firefighters battling part of a blaze that had crossed into Canada, had the fires about 20 percent contained early Wednesday, officials reported.

Also Wednesday, Seattle City Light started evacuating employees and others from the town of Diablo and nearby areas as another blaze, the Goodell Creek Fire, approached the utility’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project.

All City Light employees and their families are accounted for and there are no injuries, though two employees did leave Newhalem earlier in the day after complaining of respiratory difficulties from the smoke, the utility said.

City Light was operating its three dams remotely, but the fire forced the utility to shut down the transmission lines that carry electricity. The inability to deliver electricity could cost the utility about $100,000 per day, it said.

Highway 20 between the utility-owned towns of Newhalem and Diablo was shut down by a fallen tree and numerous rocks loosened by the fire, according to a news release.

These problems come as crews have started to take control of sprawling wildfires burning near Chelan.

With at least 15 large fires now raging throughout Washington, the state’s Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday afternoon ordered a shutdown of all industrial forest activities across most of Eastern Washington’s forests until further notice.

The move, believed to be the first action of its sort in more than 20 years, comes as the state ratcheted up its so-called “Industrial Fire Precaution Level” to a level 4 on Wednesday — the highest for its fire danger rating system. That action prohibits all industrial forest activities, such as logging and road construction.

Near Chelan, the three merged fires known as the Chelan Complex had grown to nearly 70,000 acres by Tuesday night, but firefighters were able to contain its spread on the south and east sides.

With that fire about half contained as of Wednesday morning, Lorena Wisehart, a public information officer for the team managing the fire, said firefighters have started “mopping up” some areas.

Still, the fire is expected to grow.

“The Chelan Complex acreage will go up,” Wisehart said. “Some of that acreage will be burnout and some of that will be the natural progress of the fire.”

The fires mainly avoided the town of Chelan, after crews dropped fire retardant from near the town’s south end..

“When that DC 10 came in and laid down the retardant, I would say that pretty much saved the town,” Mayor Bob Goeddes said Wednesday.

In turn, the fires “skirted” Chelan, before jumping east and raging out of control, he said. “We were lucky to only have about two house within the town limits destroyed,” Goeddes said.

Still, the fire’s lingering smoke and area road closures have dramatically hurt tourism — the recreational community’s bread-and-butter during summertime, the mayor said.

“If it stays this way, it’s really going to hurt,” he said. “But we still have six to eight weeks of good weather — if only the smoke would get out of here.”

About 1,140 people continued battling the Chelan blazes on Wednesday, building containment lines to protect structures. Six helicopters and two airplanes assisted fire crews from the air.

The fire has destroyed at least 73 structures in Chelan and Douglas Counties, officials said.

Sandy Staples-Hector, 75, of Redmond, said a “peaceful and beautiful” home her parents built in 1967 was reduced to rubble by the Chelan Complex’s flames.

“The fireplace is still there,” she said. “You see parts of lawn chairs, washers and dryers … things you would never think would burn.”

She said they would rebuild.

Inslee on Wednesday also requested a federal emergency declaration to provide additional resources and cover some of the costs related to handling the fires, which have burned more than 235,000 acres in Washington.

If approved, the Emergency Declaration would make financial assistance available to the State, eligible local jurisdictions and private nonprofit organizations, according to a news release. The assistance could be used to pay for costs of emergency protective measures, emergency response, and debris removal. Federal government would reimburse 75 percent of eligible costs. The declaration would also provide direct federal assistance from federal agencies.

Inslee declared a state of emergency on June 26.

With fires growing significantly overnight in Okanogan County, even more personnel has been deployed in Washington.

State Department of Natural Resource officials have deployed all five of its teams that manage large complex fires, and two more teams from out of state have joined them, said Glenn Kohler, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“Typically, you might have two, three of these teams out in the middle of fire season, with the other two resting and waiting to be deployed,” he said. “But we’re in the situation now where they’re all just rotating right back in to the next fire.”

Blazes throughout Washington and the West have been fueled by hotter weather and dryer than typical conditions this fire season, state and federal fire officials have said.

In Washington, such hot and dry conditions are expected to continue; with fire weather conditions forecast to worsen through Friday.

“There are really dry fuels, unstable atmosphere, low humidity and winds will increase,” Wisehart said. “(Firefighters) will be keeping an eye on all those things.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Young contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or ebush@seattletimes.com On Twitter @evanbush

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