By Ann McCreary
The Twisp River Fire, which exploded to life early Wednesday afternoon (Aug. 19), took the lives of three firefighters, destroyed an unknown number of homes, and forced evacuation of Twisp and Winthrop in its first devastating day.
The ferocious, wind-drive fire had burned almost 8,000 acres by Thursday morning (Aug. 20), according to the fire officials, generally northwest of Twisp. The fire expanded during the day, but officials said they would not have an updated acreage total until Friday morning.
The fire ignited about 6 miles up Twisp River Road shortly after noon Wednesday, burning hillsides as it burned roughly east and north. Thick plumes of black smoke could be seen periodically, indications of burning structures.
Helicopters dipped water from the Twisp River and planes dropped retardant on the blaze throughout the afternoon. During the evening the fire reached hilltops along Highway 20 north of Twisp, where its advance was stopped before it reached the road. Large amounts of smoke appeared to be coming from forested hills north of Elbow Coulee on Thursday.
Lines formed at gas stations Wednesday afternoon as people prepared to evacuate per instructions from Okanogan County Emergency Management. Winthrop resembled a western ghost town Thursday, and Twisp was much quieter than usual, although Hank’s Harvest Foods was busy and many other businesses were open.
The Twisp River wildfire is being managed as part of the Okanogan Complex, which includes several active fires in the county and was ranked the top priority incident in the nation as of Thursday, said Joe Anderson, public information officer for the Okanogan Complex.
Management of the complex will transition Friday from a Washington Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) to a national Type 1 IMT, which handles more complex fires and is able to mobilize more firefighting equipment and manpower.
A state mobilization plan also brought in more crews and equipment from throughout Washington to help local resources fight structure fires and wildland fires, Anderson said.
The U.S. Forest Service Thursday released the names of the three Forest Service firefighters who died fighting the fire the previous day. They are Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31. Daniel Lyon, 25, was severely burned and was listed in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“This was a tragic incident and our hearts go out to their families, friends and colleagues,” said Mike Williams, supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Dozens of Forest Service, law enforcement and firefighting vehicles escorted ambulances carrying the fallen firefighters from Twisp River Road and through town Thursday evening.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, according to the Washington State Patrol. There were no storms or lightning in the area when it ignited.
It was unclear Thursday how many homes or other structures were damaged in the fire. County emergency management officials said the fire was still too active to enter the burned areas in order to assess damage.
Power was out for residences north of Elbow Coulee Road on Twisp River Road, and would remain out “for several days,” said David Gottula, manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative.
Power was initially shut off as a precaution Wednesday afternoon shortly after the fire started, but the fire soon consumed poles and lines in the area.
“It took a direct hit. It will have to be rebuilt. We are bringing in outside crews but the fire is still burning” so the repair work will have to wait until the fire is completely out, Gottula said.
Fires burning near the Okanogan Public Utility District line that serves the Methow Valley may threaten power service to the entire area, PUD officials said earlier.
The Twisp River Fire is one “branch” of the Okanogan Complex, which also includes the Tunk Block, Nine Mile, Beaver Lake and Lime Belt/Blue Lake fires. Management of the fires began about five days ago, Anderson said.
Firefighters are bracing for continued “red flag” conditions predicted to last through Friday at 11 p.m. The red flag advisory “gives warning that we will have high fire activity. The hair on the back of our neck stands up,” Anderson said.
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote President Obama requesting a federal emergency disaster declaration.
“As you know, Washington State is experiencing a historically intense wildfire season. Wildfires burning in counties throughout central and eastern Washington have stretched our state’s wildfire fighting resources thin and have affected communities still recovering from last year’s Carlton Complex fire – worst by … acres burned in Washington state’s history,” Inslee said.
“We are proud of the first responders from multiple local, state, and federal agencies who have responded courageously to this disaster and mourn for the three firefighters who lost their lives combating the Twisp fire on Aug. 19,” Inslee said.
“Despite their heroic efforts and sacrifice, a disaster of this magnitude requires federal assistance. We therefore urge you to issue a federal emergency disaster declaration as soon as possible.”
Editor’s note: We will be attending the 11 a.m. briefing on Friday and will have another update after that.