Documents: Winds shifted minutes before firefighters killed

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Dispatch records show minute-by-minute account of fatal fire.

Seven minutes after a deputy radioed that the wind from a growing wildfire had shifted direction, dispatchers got a second call: A burn victim needed an ambulance. Dispatchers with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office helped coordinate the responses of federal, state and local firefighters, police and sheriff’s deputies and other emergency responders to fire near the north-central Washington state community of Twisp.The engine in which three firefighters died in the Twisp River Fire was found on a hillside about 40 feet below Woods Canyon Road, according to investigators for the U.S.

Two Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildland firefighters, who were injured on Aug. 19 as they fought a fire near Twisp, are recuperating. DNR employee Donald Smith was treated and released the day of the incident, while Reed Callis, of Forks, WA, was kept overnight and released the next day. Within the span of 12 minutes, the wildfire in Washington state went from being just one of many lightning-sparked blazes burning across the Pacific Northwest to the scene of the deadliest single wildfire this year in the U.S. When reached by emergency responders on Wednesday (Aug. 19), the engine was upright and had been burned over, with the three deceased firefighters inside.

Three firefighters were killed after their engine rushed up a steep gravel road and crashed down a 40-foot embankment near the mountain town of Twisp. — Evacuations continue, an elderly resident refuses to leave his home, and a deputy warns dispatchers that the fire may jump over Twisp River Road, which in calmer conditions could serve as a natural firebreak. -3:01 p.m. Strike teams and smokejumpers conducted burn outs Sunday and Monday around the active northwest side of the fire to solidify fire lines, said Tombolato.

Forest Service investigators were on the scene almost immediately, according to Christopher Boehm, assistant director for law enforcement and investigations with the Forest Service. Forest Service employees were killed and a fourth seriously injured when they were overrun by flames on the same day. “While grateful that our colleagues are home, it is still a sad time.” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the three Forest Service firefighters killed by this fire. While the documents don’t say why the crash occurred or what attempts were made to save the crew members, they illustrate a common problem with wildfires that has yet to be solved: How to stay safe in unpredictable shifting winds while doing a job that is high-risk even on the calmest of days. “We had all these fires and the wind came up, and it wasn’t just blowing one direction,” Sheriff Frank Rogers told the AP. “It was blowing 180 degrees, every direction and hard. …

— Evacuations and road closures continue, and all law enforcement officers that aren’t currently assigned to calls are asked to meet at a nearby high school. -4:01 p.m. Mourning the deaths of three firefighters last week, and reeling from multiple evacuations, power outages and destruction of homes and property, the community is once again struggling with the aftermath — and ongoing reality — of devastating wildfire. A supplemental report added to the dispatch log a few days later included a description of the accident scene by a deputy who helped the county coroner retrieve the bodies from the burned Forest Service fire engine. High temperatures, strong winds and tinder-dry vegetation fed the fire, which quickly grew from two acres when it was first reported to a firestorm that threatened both Twisp and Winthrop for several days. Forest Service started sending firefighters — including the three who later died — and equipment to the area, located about 115 miles northeast from Seattle.

Four fire engines with engine crews, a hand crew on foot, bulldozer and helicopter were part of the initial attack on the fire, said Keith Satterfield, a fire management officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “If we didn’t have all the other fires we had going on we probably would have had more air resources,” Satterfield said. When the wind is traveling in one direction, firefighters know where to expect the flames to run and can set up firefighting operations on the other flanks of the blaze. The fire was about 30 percent contained on Tuesday and the containment was expected to increase in coming days. “The unfortunate part is, aviation can’t fly,” Tombolato said. The area where the accident took place was fully engulfed by the fire and investigators are trying to reconstruct what may have been there, said Phipps. Satterfield would not talk specifically about their deaths, but noted that initial attack teams often go in blind except for what information is gathered during the initial 911 call and what clues can be discerned from smoke columns, weather patterns and the terrain. “It’s a very dangerous job and even though you plan and put everything in place to provide your safety, there’s still that unknown that you’re not in control of,” he said. “It may be some time before we truly know what happened because we take our time and try to know all the aspects of it,” she said. “A lot of things can work together to cause problems.” A memorial service for Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31; is scheduled for 1 p.m.

Phipps said they believe there were some radio communications as conditions changed — the wind reportedly shifted 180 degrees — but he did not have any details or confirmation. Investigators believe the three other injured firefighters, including a bulldozer operator and dozer boss, were found higher up on the hill, said Phipps.

There were six residences on the road, plus other structures, and initial reports indicate that at least three homes near the top of the road were destroyed in the fire. Thick smoke in Okanogan County reduced fire activity in the Okanogan Complex, but also prevented helicopters and air tankers from assisting with suppression efforts early in the week. On Tuesday afternoon it appeared the inversion was lifting somewhat in some areas, allowing aircraft to fly, but also encouraging fire activity, Frenzen said.

A key to reaching the goal is to learn as much as possible from accidents, and that requires survivors and witnesses to be willing to share what they know about the circumstances, she said. “Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, over the years many U.S. The Lime Belt/Blue Lake Fire, burning near Conconully and Okanogan, and the Beaver Lake Fire, burning north of the Loup Loup summit, continued to grow together on the southwest side and totaled 109,706 acres. Fire managers asked motorists traveling on Highway 20 and Highway 97 near fires to slow down and drive carefully, due to heavy fire vehicle traffic in those areas.

Experienced firefighters perform well in the face of complexity and all personnel involved in the event did the best they could and took actions that made sense at the time, said Phipps. The information is also used in connection with employee benefits and agency liability. “Surprisingly, with few exceptions, we can come down to a cause,” said Boehm. They examine fire behavior, topography and available fuels, and there is typically enough evidence left at a scene to determine a cause, he said. “The fire is a physical thing.

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