A new report offers the most detailed account to date about the circumstances surrounding the deadly Twisp wildfire that killed three firefighters and critically burned another.
Strong, shifting winds that dramatically fanned a wildfire near Twisp in Okanogan County in August pushed walls of flames and smoke onto a team of firefighters, catching them off-guard and forcing them to retreat blindly down a winding dirt road to their deaths, according to a joint state and federal report released Friday.
With “the road completely obscured by smoke,” the four U.S. Forest Service firefighters fleeing in Engine No. 642 — one of several crews battling the blaze — raced down Woods Canyon Road as flames exploded around them.
“They kept driving downhill, but they had zero visibility, and the engine went off the road,” the report said. “The engine came to a stop, and the surviving firefighter got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road.”
The report, offers the most detailed account to date about the circumstances surrounding the deadly blaze that killed U.S. Forest Service firefighters Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski on Aug. 19. The fire also critically burned Daniel Lyon Jr., who staggered away from the wrecked engine to safety.
The report — authored by a team of employees from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the National Park Service — offers a narrative of the fire’s circumstances as part of a larger, ongoing review that seeks to assess the tragedy for safety improvements.
The status report doesn’t assign blame or draw any firm conclusions, but lists various questions officials plan to consider as part of further analysis:
• Do crews fight fires differently if there are structures threatened and should there be a reconsideration of the “objectives, strategies and tactics” in what firefighters call the wildland-urban interface?
• What improvements can be made under the current firefighting system?
• How did weather predictions for another wildfire affect decisions for battling the Twisp blaze?
“Like us, you certainly have unanswered questions about this incident,” the report states. “We do not know all the answers to the questions we are facing, and some questions may never be answered.”
But overall, the report does offer far more details and new insight into the large tactical response employed to battle the fire that ignited about five miles west of town.
Firefighters from three different agencies — Okanogan County Fire District 6, Washington DNR and the USFS — were assigned to fight the fire, tapping a variety of resources. Various crews assigned to 14 different-sized fire engines, two water tenders, two bulldozers and several helicopters and air tankers worked to control the terrain-driven fire that was initially assessed at about three to four acres.
“Within four hours, the fire had spread dramatically over the area … and doubled in size in approximately 15 minutes,” the report said.
The first incident commander on scene, from the local fire district, drove from house to house up the dead-end Woods Canyon Road, telling residents to evacuate. He later established a staging area at the rear of the fire on the nearby Twisp River Road, as more crews assembled to battle the blaze.
Three incident commanders representing the various agencies soon agreed on a standard tactical plan to “protect life first, then property,” the report said. The initial plan had firefighters “start at the safe, already burned area at the heel of the fire and work their way around the fire, staying as close to the black (burned) area as possible.”
Personnel were split among different sides of the fire. On its left flank, which initially had more active flames, firefighters took a more aggressive approach, with helicopters helping.
On the right side, crews scouted and assessed conditions, while several engines assembled along the Twisp River Road near the heel of the fire, looking for hot spots to douse and protecting homes.
Eventually, four fire engines headed up the already evacuated Woods Canyon Road as part of a coordinated effort to protect structures amid rapidly changing plans. Varying radio-frequencies between the multiagency crews made it difficult to communicate and fully understand that area had already been evacuated, the report said.
Then, at about 2:45 p.m., the winds shifted from the fire’s left flank to its right.
“The wind had shifted and increased (the fire’s) speed,” the report said. “Correspondingly, extreme fire behavior was observed, which astounded even the most experienced firefighters at Twisp.”
The fire’s shifting smoke plumes were so thick, aerial crews couldn’t safely fly into the blaze’s right flank.
“We need help!”
According to the report, one firefighter recounted seeing Engine 642’s crew members scramble to get into their truck, as the flames exploded. The truck initially drove up the road “in the opposite direction of their safety zone.” As it fled, 60-foot flames could been seen shooting up above the house the crew had been trying to protect, with the blaze’s intense heat pressing down onto crews in the area.
As Engine 642 headed up the dead-end road, a coordinating crew member known as the “point of contact” for the fire’s right flank whistled and yelled to its crew, “RTO!” The warning meant “Reverse Tool Order,” or turn around and head back down the escape route. The engine turned around and retreated blindly into smoke described later as “black as night,” before crashing a short time later.
Lyon, 25, eventually came out of flames screaming, “We need help up there! Please, we need help!”
Another firefighter helped him along the road to paramedics in the staging area. He was later evacuated by ambulance, and flown by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center. He was released from the hospital this week.
Crews on the three other engines along Woods Canyon Road managed to flee to safety. Some later reported they’d “never seen or heard anything like the fire behavior they experienced.” According to the report, the crew members “could not hear anything due to the deafening noise, which one firefighter described as, ‘like a giant TV tuned to static and turned up full blast.’ ”
High radio traffic
As the fire exploded, one engine crew pulled the point of contact, still on foot on the roadway, into their truck. The point of contact then radioed to the staging area, “Emergency traffic! Road compromised! Need aerial support!”
“During this period of evacuation, the radio traffic was incredibly busy,” the report said. “Too many firefighters were trying to use the radio at the same time for anyone to communicate effectively.”
Meantime, up the road, a bulldozer crew huddled in a garage that caught fire and nearly collapsed, before they fled toward the nearby road. The dozer’s operator had left his fire shelter in the bulldozer “because it was attached with a bungee cord to the dozer cage, and he did not think he would need it.” Together, the three men deployed the two available shelters and survived.
Jennifer Zbyszewski, mother of Tom Zbyszewski, has read the report, and called it “well-written and a good summary of what happened.”
Zbyszewski herself is a Forest Service employee on the Methow Valley Ranger District, and is now back on the job.