Three firefighters were killed and four more were injured while battling a wildfire in Washington state's rural interior on Wednesday.
The fallen firefighters were responding to a raging fire that has prompted evacuations near Twisp in Okanogan County, about 115 miles northeast of Seattle. They became trapped by the fire as winds shifted, the local sheriff 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," the U.S. Forest Service said
The U.S. Forest Service identified the victims as 20-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, 26-year-old Andrew Zajac, and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler. "These are big heroes protecting small towns,”Gov. Jay Inslee said. "And we are going to remember them."
He called the eruption of wildfires in the state an "unprecedented cataclysm."
"My heart breaks over the loss of life. I know all Washington joins me and Trudi in sending our prayers to the families of these brave firefighters. They gave their lives to protect others."
"The bottom line is this is Hell in here," Okanogan Sheriff Frank Rodgers said. "It's just obvious. The wind's blowing in every damn direction."
Four other firefighters were hurt in the blaze, including 25-year-old Daniel Lyons, a Forest Service firefighter from Washington who suffered critical injuries. He was at a Seattle hospital with burns covering 60 percent of his body. By Thursday, the other three injured firefighters were released from hospitals.
The fatalities and injured firefighters add to 14 other injuries and one death during Washington's 2015 fire season. 13 people have died battling wildfires nationwide, according to Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center.
50 homes and 60 other buildings have been destroyed, according to Gov. Inslee, who asked the White House to declare a federal emergency to activate funds to fight the fires.
The Okanagan Complex fire has burned approximately 31,000 acres, and has forced the evacuation of about 3,000 people from the towns of Twisp and Winthrop. The town of Conconully was evacuated on Tuesday. More than 400 firefighters are responding to the blaze.
It is really bad out there. The fires have just exploded," Okanogan Emergency Management spokeswoman Angela Seydel told KOMO.
The lightning-sparked blaze is a dangerous combination of several fires: the Lime Belt Fire, the Blue Lake Fire, the Tunk Block Fire, the Beaver Lake Fire and the Nine Mile Fire.
It adds to 10 other fires that have burned nearly 300,000 acres in different parts of Washington, . The state took the drastic step of shutting down all industrial forest activities across most of Eastern Washington, the Seattle Times reported.