TWISP, Wash. — The three firefighters killed while battling a raging wildfire in north-central Washington were identified Thursday, as the community and state mourned their loss. Officials launched an investigation into what went wrong.
The U.S. Forest Service identified their three firefighters as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31. They were based out of Washington’s Methow Valley in the north-central part of the state.
They were battling the Twisp River Fire, now part of the 80,000-acre Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington’s Okanogan County.
Zbyszewski’s parents said their 20-year-old son was working as a firefighter to pay for tuition at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
“He was the light of our life,” his dad said. “We’d give anything to have yesterday not happen.”
On Thursday, the state’s highest elected officials met in Chelan — an area also scorched by a wildfire — to talk about the fallen firefighters and the more than 300,000 acres burning around the state.
Gov. Jay Inslee immediately paid his respects to the fallen heroes, as well as offer support for the more than 3,000 firefighters fighting flames in Washington.
“These are big heroes protecting small towns,” Inslee said. “And we are going to remember them. … These people lost their lives doing what firefighters do, which is to run toward the fire, rather than away.”
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said a team of Forest Service experts, working with the state Department of Natural Resources, were conducting an investigation into what went wrong and what led to the firefighters' deaths.
A day earlier, the Forest Service put out a news release that said, “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."
Four fighters were also injured in Wednesday's tragedy.
One of the injured firefighters, 25-year-old Daniel Lyon, was airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where he is listed in critical condition. He reportedly has burns over 60 percent of his body. He’s awake, but heavily medicated, hospital officials said.
The three other injured firefighters were reportedly released from local hospitals.
The fire started off Twisp River Road early Wednesday. The cause of it is not yet known, and has burned more than 7,000 acres alone, officials said.
The total area of all of the Okanogan Complex Fire reaches across more than 80,000 acres.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the entire city of Tonasket, with a population around 1,000, was ordered to evacuate:
A majority of Winthrop and Twisp are under Level 3 mandatory evacuations, which includes about 4,000 homes. Some Level 3 evacuations were downgraded to Level 2 Thursday morning, meaning some residents could return. Still, the fires are fast-moving, officials said, and residents need to prepare to leave at anytime.
Twisp, which has a population of about 940, is the largest town in Washington’s Methow Valley. Winthrop has a population of about 400.
Four-hundred National Guard troops, along with firefighters from crews all over the country, have joined local crews to fight the fires in Washington state. Twenty-six aerial utilities are currently deployed to fight the blazes from the air.
Incident Commander Chris Schulte said conditions will remain tough -- if not worsen -- through Thursday. Hot weather, higher winds and low humidity are keeping a Red Flag Warning in place for East of the Cascades through Friday evening. A dry cold front is expected to pass through the evening Friday, though little respite is expected.
Methow Valley and the Okanogan Valley are all expected to see high winds through Friday.
Inslee requested a federal Emergency Declaration to provide additional resources to cover some of the costs related to multiple wildfires burning in Eastern Washington. The governor said 11 counties and four tribes are affected or threatened by fires. Officials have confirmed that the fires have already destroyed more than 50 homes, 60 other structures, and more than 350,000 acres of land.
Remembering deadly 2001 wildfire
The tragedy Wednesday wasn’t the first time that firefighters lost their lives battling wildfires in Washington. On July 10, 2001, four U.S. Forest Service firefighters died while battling the Thirty Mile Fire in Okanogan County. That was the second deadliest fire in Washington history. In 1974, five firefighters died when a vehicle overturned.
The Space Needle announced Thursday that flags would be lowered to half-staff to honor the fallen firefighters.
Across the nation, many have offered their support for the state.