Unattended campfire suspected in fatal Northwest blaze; four killed, six injured
WINTHROP, Wash. (AP) – A wall of flame crashed down on firefighters huddled in their silver emergency shelters in a narrow canyon in the north Cascade Mountains, killing four of them in the deadliest wildfire since 1994.
The fire, which apparently was sparked Tuesday by an unattended campfire, quickly spread through stands of 80- to 100-year-old trees in an area left vulnerable by months of drought and unusually high temperatures.
It happened suddenly. Firefighters were mopping up the small fire in the Chewuch River Valley when the flames exploded, engulfing 2,500 acres of fir and pine and trapping 23 people behind the flames.
One five-person crew ran downhill toward the Chewuch River. They climbed into their tent-like emergency shelters that firefighters call ”shake and bakes” just as the flames overran them.
Four of them – two men and two women – were killed, and their leader was hospitalized with serious burns. It was the worst loss of life since 14 firefighters were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994.
”This is a great tragedy and loss that is felt by all firefighters and agency employees everywhere,” said Sonny J. O’Neal, supervisor of the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. ”Firefighters are a family, and any time a firefighter is killed, grief is felt by all.”
An elite team of U.S. Forest Service investigators arrived Wednesday to investigate.
Of the 21 firefighters and two civilians trapped by the fire, most were able to deploy emergency fire shelters or otherwise escape the flames.
The Forest Service identified the dead as Tom L. Craven, 30, of Ellensburg, Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, of Yakima, Devin A. Weaver, 21, of Yakima, and Jessica L. Johnson, 19, of Yakima.
The fire began early Tuesday and was burning through dense stands of trees at roughly 3,200 feet to 6,700 feet elevation.
The fire seemed to be well in hand when the temperature rose, generating wind that sent flames roaring through a rugged area of the Okanogan National Forest in north-central Washington. The fire erupted from about 100 acres to about 2,500 acres, said Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Kelly. Fire bosses then ordered crews to pull back.
”All of the firefighters were in a dire situation,” O’Neal said. ”The fire blew up as firefighters were trying to evacuate to get to a safe place and all of them were in serious threat of losing their lives.”
One of the four injured firefighters, Jason Emhoff, 21, of Yakima, was in serious but stable condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with burns over 25 percent of his body.
Emhoff’s father, Steve Emhoff, said in an interview from the hospital that his son was leading the five-member crew than ran to the river.
They all managed to climb into their individual shelters, which have an aluminum exterior and a fiberglass interior that deteriorates at about 600 degrees.
”He was the only one who made it out,” Steve Emhoff said of his son.
Jason Emhoff, an Eagle Scout, emergency medical technician and a firefighter with the Forest Service the past two years, was most seriously burned on his hands, thighs and face, his father said.
”He knew what he was up against,” he said. ”I think he handled himself quite well.”
Although the three younger firefighters were inexperienced, ”they were with people who were fairly experienced,” said Pete Soderquist, a Forest Service fire management officer.
The fire was one of at least three in central Washington that have burned more than 6,000 acres. For months, fire officials have worried that lack of rain this year could result in a severe fire season.
Firefighters were closely watching the remote wildfire Wednesday, but said they would not send crews in again until they can be assured it is safe.
Temperatures Wednesday were predicted to be in the mid-90s with wind gusts of 10-12 mph and extremely low humidity. ”Very much like yesterday,” Forest Service spokesman Ron DeHart said.
Extremely dry weather since last fall and large amounts of dead wood and brush have produced tinder-like conditions in the upper Methow Valley, as well as in the rest of the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range, Kelly said.
”It’s a very intense fire due to the dryness of the weather and the fuels,” she said. ”It’s so dry it’s going very quickly. We’re getting weather and fuel conditions that we normally get in August.”
Two other fires also were burning east of Cascade crest.
To the southeast, officials said firefighters had ringed about 40 percent of the 1,200-acre Libby South fire in steep, rocky canyons near Carlton, about 20 miles south of Winthrop.
The third fire, burning about 80 miles southeast of Libby Creek Fire near Grand Coulee Dam, grew overnight from 70 acres to 2,400 acres, burning in scattered timber, sage and grasses, said Dale Warner, fire information officer.
No homes were threatened. A state management team took over the firefighting efforts early Wednesday, and about 100 firefighters, mostly from area fire departments, were at the scene.
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