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Twisp fire survivors tell of driving through flames to escape blaze that killed three crew members

The fire that started just north of Twisp River Road on Aug. 19, 2015, was like any other that hot, dry summer. But before the day was over, more than a dozen firefighters and bulldozer operators would be trapped by the fire and three would die.

The fire started about 12:30 p.m. when branches rubbed up against a power line. Crews jumped on the fire quickly to try to limit its spread and worked to save homes among the trees on Woods Canyon Road, a dead end. Things went normally for several hours, as crews dug hand lines, put in a dozer line and called in fire retardant drops.

On scene were Forest Service Engines 1 and 642 with four-man crews; a three-man dozer crew from the state Department of Natural Resources; two engines from Colorado; and a Fire District 6 engine. A Division 1 chief officer and an out-of-area-incident commander were also present.

A captain was pulled off Forest Service Engine 1 to act as the point-of-contact on the fire’s left flank and the assistant captain of Forest Service Engine 642 was pulled to be the right flank point-of-contact. The assistant captain of Forest Service Engine 1 was made air operations point of contact. In a rapidly evolving fire, it isn’t unusual for incident commanders to pull experienced crew members off incoming engines to create their command team.

The engine from Fire District 6 and the DNR dozer crew were at the end of the road trying to protect a home, while the Colorado engines were just down the hill at a fork in the road.

An engine boss trainee from Engine 642 was tasked with finding a spot for a dozer line and left the engine. It continued down the hill to protect another house.

At around 2:45 p.m., the wind shifted. It hit some people in the face; others in different areas couldn’t feel the wind but saw the smoke from the fire suddenly stand up straight in the air. The fire doubled in size in 15 minutes, sending flames at full speed directly toward firefighters.

The radios were so busy it was difficult to get word out. Firefighters began running for their lives as an emergency evacuation order blasted out. But it was too late. The fire had overrun Woods Canyon Road, the only way out.

Engine 642 drove up the hill to get away from the flames, but they were ordered to turn around and go back toward Twisp River Road. They were the first to attempt an escape.

The engines from Colorado drove up the hill until they were able to turn around and also head back down toward Twisp River Road.

Crews said they couldn’t hear anything over the deafening noise of the fire.

Survivor Daniel Lyon Jr., 25, said it felt like several tires blew as Engine 642 drove down the hill. “We were just driving through the fire and you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” he said.

With the driver unable to see, the engine drove off the road and went down an embankment until it stopped on a rock, Lyon said. He immediately jumped out through the left rear door and ran through the flames. No one followed him.

Lyon ran down the road, yelling for help, until he found his engine boss. He was evacuated with severe burns.

The engines from Colorado were the next to go down the hill. They drove past Engine 642, unable to see it because of the flames. They came across 642’s assistant captain, who had been on foot acting as the right flank point-of-contact. The captain tripped and fell, and someone reached out and yanked him inside, taking him to safety.

One of the drivers reported that during their escape, his steering wheel got so hot he wished he was wearing gloves. Firefighters reported conditions “as black as night” as they crept down the hill.

Meanwhile, things looked bleak for the Fire District 6 and DNR dozer crews that had gone to the house at the end of the road. They huddled near the garage while the engine crew used their water to spray down the area. They pried up the garage door and took shelter inside.

Then the engine crew was told to evacuate. The road was in flames. They waited for an opening.

“It was just orange; there was no smoke,” one firefighter said. “Everything was on fire. You could just see tree skeletons burning.”

Finally, they saw a gap and made a run for it in their engine. They stopped when they found their way blocked, then made for it again when another gap opened. They made their way down the hill in fits and starts, with the water turret mounted on the front bumper spraying what little water they had left.

By this time, the house and garage at the end of the road were on fire. The dozer crew knew they were in trouble. They ran to the road, sustaining some burns in the process, and set up their fire shelters in the middle of the road where it forked. They had two shelters for three men, but they were all able to fit inside.

Planes made multiple retardant drops and at least one was close enough to the dozer crew that it reduced the high heat engulfing them.

Those who had made it safely to the bottom of the hill knew that the dozer crew and Engine 642 hadn’t made it out and went up the road looking for them. The dozer crew was found relatively uninjured in their fire shelters.

As the searchers went back down the hill with the rescued dozer crew, they spotted skid marks leading off the road and found Engine 642. It had burned, killing Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.

Sources: Twisp River Fire Fatalities and Entrapments Operational and Organizational Learning Report and Learning Review Narrative.

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