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Firefighters were overtaken by fire after vehicle crash

Smoke from an approaching wildfire looms over a home near Twisp, Wash., on Wednesday.   (Ted Warren / Associated Press)
Smoke from an approaching wildfire looms over a home near Twisp, Wash., on Wednesday. (Ted Warren / Associated Press)

WINTHROP, Wash. – Three firefighters were killed and four others were injured Wednesday as raging wildfires advanced on towns in north-central Washington.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said the deaths in a wildfire near Twisp, were confirmed, but he said he was not immediately releasing further details about the circumstances. The firefighters who died were members of a Forest Service crew from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Rogers said.

“This fire was raging,” Rogers said. “The wind came up. The fire was just going in every direction.”

A Forest Service news release said the deaths occurred on state land near Twisp.

“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 news release said.

Four other firefighters were injured. Of those, two are the Department of Natural Resources, one from the Forest Service and one is a DNR contract, the news release said.

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

Condolences were issued from many officials, including President Barack Obama.

“My heart breaks over the loss of life,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. “I know all Washington joins me and Trudi in sending our prayers to the families of these brave firefighters. They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense.”

The news came after officials urged people in the popular outdoor-recreation centers of Twisp and Wintrop, in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, to evacuate as a complex of fires in the area covered about 50 square miles. The Okanogan County Emergency Management department issued the order for the towns.

The town of Conconully, home to about 200 people 20 miles northwest of Omak, had also been evacuated.

The fire appears to be heading north and northeast, said Okanogan County Emergency Management spokeswoman Angela Seydel. The fire has moved so fast that there is no official estimate of its size, Seydel said.

“The real fear is that the winds are going to pick up tomorrow,” she said. “That’s the forecast.”

Seydel said 4,000 homes in the region had been evacuated.

“It is really bad out there. The fires have just exploded,” she said. “We’re just directing everybody to head south.”

Red Flag warning

Conditions could be even worse in the region today.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the eastern portion of the state from 11 a.m. Wednesday to 5 p.m. Friday. Officials said temperatures will climb above 90 degrees and relative humidity will drop as low as 14 percent.

Drought and heat have combined to make this fire season of the most active in the United States in recent years. Nearly 29,000 firefighters are battling some 100 large blazes across the West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California.

The fire near Twisp continued to rage after night fell Wednesday.

“I’m looking at it right now,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. “It’s coming up the ridge. Right now it’s really smoking.”

Another fire in Okanogan County made a run toward the town of Riverside, prompting officials to order the evacuation of the entire town.

“Everyone is just running around trying to fight these things,” he said.

Governor Jay Inslee, who was scheduled to fly to Okanogan today to survey damage, has requested a Federal emergency declaration to provide resources to cover some of the costs of the multiple wildfires burning across the state.

“Communities in Eastern Washington are strong and coming together, but need help,” Inslee wrote in a statement. “The current fires will exacerbate the ongoing housing shortages and economics troubles felt throughout the region.”

Towns emptying

In Winthrop, Main Street was deserted late Wednesday except for motorists leaving town or searching unsuccessfully for a gas pump.

“This place is a wild west ghost town,” one said, referring to Winthrop’s Old West tourism theme.

A fire truck with Colorado license plates rumbled through the lone stop sign in Winthrop, followed by an Okanogan County Sheriff’s deputy warning the only two pedestrians in sight that the fire danger had been raised to Level Three, and he encouraged them to evacuate.

Chris Harwood, a local resident “on and off for 40-plus years,” was cruising around in search of interesting photographs.

“You don’t see this in Winthrop very often,” he explained.

Harwood had heard that the fire danger had risen, “but I wasn’t sure what the details were.”Asked if he planned to evacuate, Harwood said, “I only have one home and one place to stay.” But he would leave if he thought he was in danger. “If it burns, it burns.”

Canadians John Pogson and Karla Kirmis had arrived three days earlier to rock climb, and now were desperately searching for fuel before heading home. When they stopped at Winthrop Motors in the heart of town, several other drivers pulled in behind them, assuming the pumps were operating.

They weren’t.

“It’s been kind of nerve-wracking,” Pogson said, “getting mixed messages from the Park Service telling us we’d be fine until tomorrow, and then a lady from the Park Service saying at 7 o’clock, ‘I advise you to get the hell out of here.’”

In Twisp, City Councilman Dwight Filer was sticking behind, for now, getting his property wet with sprinklers and packing up. Late Wednesday, he said the fire was within a mile of the town with the wind pushing it that way, but he said he believed the “town is safe right now.”

Firefighters were building a fire line between the town and the fire.

He said he and other residents received a text message to evacuate and county deputies drove through with loudspeakers warning them to leave.

“We’ve got our vehicles ready to roll with our valuables,” he said.

His wife was planning to leave Wednesday night. Although he planned to stay longer, his car was packed too.

“I’ve got my banjo in there, and I’m ready to go,” he said.

Judy Lloyd, of Twisp, said she was packing up her dog and a few things and heading out Wednesday afternoon soon after the notice was given.

Asked where she was headed she said: “I’m not sure yet.”

Lloyd’s husband, Twisp City Councilman Bob Lloyd, was elsewhere in Okanogan County fighting a different fire.

A Red Cross Shelter for Twisp residents has been opened at Brewster High School.

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

Business already hit

Most businesses in Twisp and Winthrop were shutting down after the notice.

The River Run Inn in Winthrop’s phone message announced it was closed and reassured guests that they will not be charged if they had a reservation.

The web camera at the Sun Mountain Lodge outside of Winthrop showed thick smoke Wednesday evening and a notification on their web site said the lodge was evacuated.

The phone message at Hometown Pizza in Twisp said it would “close until further notice.”

“I just hope everybody is safe,” the message said. “Pray for all the firefighters and pray for all the people.”

Filer noted that the economy in the area also suffered last year because of a major fire.

“A lot of our businesses rely on the summer season for most of their income,” he said. “It’s a nightmare all over again.”

But he added that the loss of life was devastating to the community.

“I’m dreading learning any more than I know already.”

Ferry County evacuations

In the county to the east, the sheriff warned all residents on Wednesday to be ready to leave.

All residents within Ferry County not already under an evacuation notice were put under a level-one evacuation notice Wednesday. That’s the lowest level of evacuation and is a request for residents to aware of surrounding fires and to be prepared to go.

The Renner Lake Fire near Barstow started Tuesday and was an estimated 280 acres on Wednesday, threatening homes and venturing close to Highway 395. The 71 square-mile North Star fire in Okanogan County still is growing and is bordering on Ferry County. Residents north of Nespelem from Gold Lake Road to Stepstone Road were under Level 3 evacuation notice Wednesday, which means they were urged to leave. A fire information line is available at (509) 724-0040.

Ferry County Sheriff Raymond Maycumber said the warning was issued because of limited firefighting resources, poor visibility worsening fire conditions.

“If the fires progress we will not have enough resources to go door-to-door,” Maycumber said in a news release.

Logging ban

Meanwhile, logging and other industrial activities will be banned across Eastern Washington forests because of fire danger.

It’s the first time in more than 20 years that the state has taken such a step.

The ban on industrial activities, which also includes road construction, will be phased in during the next couple of days.

At midnight Thursday forests in the counties of Spokane, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry, and Okanogan will be closed to logging and construction.

Then Friday bans will affect parts of Chelan, Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties.

This story was reported by correspondent Michael Guilfoil in Winthrop and staff writers Nina Culver and Jonathan Brunt in Spokane. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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