The firefighters — members of a specially trained unit that is sent into danger ahead of everyone else to size up a wildfire — rushed up a narrow, winding gravel road with steep hills on either side.
It was a deathtrap.
Their vehicle crashed, and before they could escape, flames rolled over them, killing three firefighters inside and injuring four others nearby, one critically, authorities said.
The deaths Wednesday night cast a pall in Washington and brought to 13 the number of firefighters killed across the West this year during one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record.
The blazes have “burned a big hole in our state’s heart,” Gov. Jay Inslee lamented Thursday, describing the outbreak as an “unprecedented cataclysm.”
“These are three big heroes protecting small towns,” the governor said, urging residents to “thank a firefighter.”
The U.S. Forest Service identified the dead men as Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31.
Two Incident Manage Teams — the highest level of wildfire coordination teams — were en route to Twisp.
One of the teams will assist with fighting the complex of fires that has burned more than 30,000 acres and the second will investigate the fire deaths.
The Forest Service initiated its “critical response protocol” for the incident, which deploys a team to conduct an analysis of what led to the fatalities as a prevention learning tool, Pilip-Florea said.
The agency also coordinated crisis liaisons to assist families of the dead and injured firefighters, and Forest Service employees affected by the tragedy.
“We have a critical incident stress management team coming in for support,” she said.
Fire officials with notebooks and cameras walked the hills and banks near Woods Canyon Road outside Twisp, investigating how the event happened. Authorities gave few details, shedding no light, for example, on the crash, other than to say it was not the accident itself that killed the victims, but the fire.
The deaths happened in the scenic Methow River valley, where a series of blazes covering close to 140 square miles had merged. The flames burned an undetermined number of homes and triggered orders to about 1,300 people in the outdoor-recreation communities of Twisp and Winthrop to evacuate.
“It was a nightmare,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. “Everything was burning.” He added: “We know it was a firestorm in there.”
All the dead were U.S. Forest Service firefighters. They were from highly specialized crews that go into dangerous areas as fast as they can to examine a scene and report back to commanders on what needs to be done, said Bill Queen, a firefighting spokesman.
“It just kind of exploded and they got caught in a burn over,” said Queen, referring to what happens when conditions change so rapidly that flames overtake firefighters.
Nearly 29,000 firefighters — 3,000 of them in Washington — are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought- and heat-stricken West, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California.
Conditions were expected to deteriorate in Washington on Thursday, with high winds and high temperatures.
“We have a responsibility to stay on focus and stay on task today. That’s a good way to honor the fallen firefighters,” said fire incident commander Chris Schulte.
Rick McCauley, a manager at Sun Mountain Lodge, which sits at the end of an 18-mile road winding through forests from the town of Winthrop, said he had about 70 rooms filled when he decided to evacuate the hotel.
“We looked at the fire coming over the hill and made the decision to clear everyone out,” he said. “There’s only one road in and out, so we don’t want to take any chances.”
Steve Morse, who lives near the Twisp fire, said he watched flames “kind of hop-scotching these ridges, working toward our house.”
“I can’t even imagine. To lose your life fighting fire, it’s horrible for a family, and it’s just a bad deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has called in reinforcements to the Twisp fire, Forest Service spokeswoman Shoshona Pilip-Florea said.
In Twisp, which remains under mandatory evacuation, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark described the fire as having “pretty explosive growth” since it sparked Wednesday.
Goldmark said winds are expected to be gusting again Thursday, to “make things extremely difficult” for firefighters.
Given the deaths of the firefighters, Goldmark said people shouldn’t undertake “heroic” acts just to save buildings.
“It’s a grim reminder of how dangerous it is” to fight such fires, he said Thursday.
This season, 13 people have died battling wildfires, including the three in Washington, said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. She said it was a high number but could not immediately compare it to other years.
“Our firefighting personnel have been particularly hard hit this year,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling it an “extraordinarily challenging wildfire season.”
The Seattle Times and The New York Times contributed to this story.