Documents: Winds Shifted Minutes Before Firefighters Killed

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘It’s brutal’: Washington’s largest ever wildfire challenging firefighters.

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. Smoke from big wildfires burning east of the Cascade Range hurt air quality Wednesday and hampered efforts by crews battling the flames in Washington state. — Massive wildfires in the West have led to poor air quality across the region, causing respiratory problems for people far from the fire lines as well as grounding firefighting aircraft.

Smoky conditions grounded helicopters and airplanes that had been fighting the fires, and air quality was rated as unhealthy for some people in Spokane County, which has nearly 500,000 residents. That sun brought more heat to Washington, where firefighters kept a wary eye on rising temperatures and winds that threatened to expand what’s already the largest wildfire on record in the state. The Okanogan fires, which have claimed the lives of three firefighters, grew by 6.7 square kilometres on Monday night and have now burned more than 1,000 square km.

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. Dispatch records from the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request detail the chaos of the Aug. 19 fire and coordinated response to the blaze that exploded during one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record. National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for the area, saying temperatures were expected to climb into the mid 30s as humidity dropped and winds gusted to 20 mph. “Hot, dry and unstable conditions will create an environment conducive to increased growth on existing wildfires,” the Weather Service said in its warning. 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. … The Oregon Military Department said soldiers also were ready to help battle a wildfire that has destroyed more than three dozen homes near John Day, about 150 miles east of Portland.

The 71 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand picked up equipment Monday at the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho, before heading out to help a ground campaign led by firefighters from across the West and augmented by U.S. soldiers. So much heat and flame and smoke.” Several major fires were already burning in drought-stricken area when the first 911 call reporting the fire near Twisp came in.

So many fires are burning in Washington that managers are taking extreme measures, summoning help from abroad and 200 U.S. troops from a base in Tacom, Wash., in the first such use of active-duty soldiers in nine years. Forest Service started sending firefighters — including the three who later died — and equipment to the area, located about 115 miles northeast from Seattle.

Fires also were burning in Montana and Idaho, where an atmospheric inversion was holding heavy smoke over western Montana, robbing wildfires of oxygen and preventing the sun from heating ground fuels. The state is looking for former firefighters or heavy equipment operators who can bulldoze fire lines to corral the blazes and keep them from spreading in mountainous, timber-covered areas. 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.

In Central California, nearly 200 firefighters were treated for allergic reactions to poison oak while battling a 13-square-kilometre blaze on the coast. The dreaded plant is so ubiquitous in the steep wilderness of San Luis Obispo County that crews can’t avoid it, said Bennett Milloy, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Just two minutes after the initial call warning that the winds had changed, all residents along the Twisp River were told to evacuate immediately, according to the dispatch records. 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. Swift-shifting winds have played a role in the deaths of other wildland firefighters, including 19 members of an elite crew who died after a wildfire trapped them in a brush-choked canyon near the Arizona town of Yarnell in 2013.

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.

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