Tonasket evacuated; firefighters killed identified

KING 5's Glenn Farley reports.

 

  • Mandatory evacuation order was issued for Tonasket. Residents are advised to go to Brewster High School immediately.
  • Resources are stretched thin, officials are asking for volunteers to help fight wildfires, a first for Washington.
  • Officials released the names of the three firefighters killed in a wildfire near Twisp.
  • Long stretches of SR 20 and US 97 remain closed.
  • A Red Flag warning remains in effect until Friday night.

TONASKET, Wash. – Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Tonasket Thursday evening as wildfires fanned by high winds raged out of control in Okanogan County, one day after fires claimed the lives of three firefighters and injured four others.

The Okanogan County Emergency Management department issued the order for the town of 1,000 people Thursday evening. Residents were told a shelter was open at Brewster High School.

Officials had warned that winds topping 40 miles per hour would complicate efforts firefighting efforts Thursday and that the blazes would almost certainly spread.

A nearby fire was quickly expanding, prompting a Level 2 evacuation order for Okanogan, just south of Tonasket. And wildfires have also closed stretches of SR 20 in the region.

Fallen firefighters identified

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials on Thursday released the names of the three firefighters killed while fighting wildfires near Twisp: Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31.

"We are mourning the loss of Tom, Andrew, and Richard and are in connection with and closely monitoring the recovery process of Daniel," Mike Williams, Forest Supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest said in a released statement. "This was a tragic incident, and our hearts go out to their families, friends, and colleagues."

The three firefighters died after their vehicle crashed during a wildfire and flames likely overtook them.

The firefighters were battling the Twisp River Fire, separate from the Okanogan Complex Fire at the time.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers says the three who died were in a vehicle that crashed but that the "crash did not kill them." His office was investigating the scene Thursday, then will turn it over to federal investigators, who will try to determine how the fire overran the firefighters.

Four other firefighters were injured, including one last listed in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with burns over 60 percent of his body. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials identified him as Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup.

Increasing fire danger in central Washington

Firefighters grieving the deaths of three fellow firefighters will have to battle their grief while battling increasingly dangerous wildfire conditions in Central Washington.

The Twisp River Fire grew from 1,500 acres Wednesday night to 16,000 acres Thursday morning, according to Washington state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. Fire managers said Thursday the Twisp River Fire is now a part of the Okanogan Complex and will be known as Branch 3. That makes the Okanogan Complex now 88,161 acres – approximately the size of Seattle. It is 38 percent contained.

With the growing number of wildfires taxing resources already stretched thin, officials were asking for volunteers to help battle wildfires, a first in Washington state.

"We cannot get out and put people and put boots on the ground for all of these fires," said Okanogan County Chief Deputy Brown. "It seems like over the last few days, we've been jumping from spot fire to spot fire...We cannot keep up."

Gov. Jay Inslee said 450 acres have burned in Washington this year, up from the 390 last year.

Rogers says homes burned Wednesday night in the Twisp and Winthrop areas, about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, but he did not know how many.

He says it was "a nightmare" that night and that "everything was burning."

As firefighters mourn the loss of their brethren, they must also deal with increased fire danger with sustained winds up to 40 mph and temperatures in the mid 80s to low 90s.

"The firefighting community is one of the closest knit groups of people probably on the planet and it was a tremendous loss. And today we're going to try to stay focused," said fire spokesperson Sarah Saarloos. "We still have 1,000-plus firefighters on this fire and we're focused on the mission."

Fire spokesman Wayne Patterson said a firefighter who was working the fire lines was married to one of the firefighters who was killed.

Firefighters who have been on the lines for 21 days straight are being rotated out. But Goldmark says that means resources are stretched very thin.

"We have orders from our incident commanders that are going unfilled. We're very appreciative of the folks from around the country that are coming to help out, but we're still really short," said Goldmark.

It wasn't immediately clear if the four injured were also involved in the accident.

The forest service identified the four injured as two Department of Natural Resources employees, a DNR contractor, and one U.S. Forest Service worker.

U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said families of the firefighter killed are still contacting relatives, so the names will not be released until that happens.

Get up-to-the minute updates on the wildfires

"On behalf of a grateful nation, the President's thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans," read a White House statement Wednesday night.

"These are people who were lost doing what firefighters do, which is to rush toward the fire rather than away," said Inslee. He urged Washington residents to thank a firefighter, no matter where they are or what agency they work for.

The Twisp River Fire forced emergency management officials to evacuate Winthrop, Twisp, and Riverside Wednesday, and Tonasket on Thursday. The fire was more than 50 acres and threatening between 20 and 100 nearby buildings.

Inslee says he has requested a Federal Emergency Declaration to secure additional wildfire resources.

The Okanogan Complex Fire was within 15 miles of Omak as of early Thursday morning and was 38% contained. At 54,838 acres, it was a little larger than the cities of Kent and Renton combined. At least 425 people are battling the Okanogan Complex Fire.

The Red Cross has set up six shelters in Okanogan County

 

  • Brewster High School in Brewster
  • Morgen Owens Elementary in Chelan
  • Sterling Intermediate School in East Wenatchee
  • Republic Elementary in Republic
  • Gess Elementary School in Chewelah
  • Columbia School

 

Phone service has been restored to the Okanogan Emergency Management Office: 509-422-7348.

Okanogan County Emergency Management has a Disaster Distress Helpline available, providing 24/7 crisis counseling and support for people affecting the wildfires. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text 66746.


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