Responders faced changing conditions, communications difficulties
By Marcy Stamper
A preliminary report on the Twisp River Fire fatalities and entrapments offers a matter-of-fact but chilling account of what happened as firefighters, who were unable to see or hear because of the raging fire, tried to escape when the fire suddenly grew deadly.
The 24-page Interagency Learning Review Status Report is designed to help officials learn from the event and perhaps reduce the chance of a similar entrapment in the future. It was released by the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Friday (Nov. 20).
While the report does not point to any one action or decision that caused the entrapment, the authors describe a chaotic situation as firefighters from several agencies tried to cope with a situation that was changing rapidly.
The report covers just a few hours, from the start of the fire at 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 19 until the entrapment and emergency medical response two-and-a-half hours later. The fire grew fairly gradually until it more than doubled in size in approximately 15 minutes, according to the report.
The three firefighters who died and the one who was severely injured on Woods Canyon Road were in the first engine to turn around, trying to drive back down to Twisp River Road. “As Engine 642 drove down toward the safety zone, the road was completely obscured by smoke. The engine jolted and dropped down as if a tire had popped,” according to the report. “They kept driving downhill, but they had zero visibility, and the engine went off the road. 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.”
Firefighters interviewed for the report gave harrowing accounts of the fire. Some said they had never seen nor heard anything like the fire behavior that day. The noise was so deafening they could not hear — one firefighter said it was “like a giant TV tuned to static and turned up full blast.” Another said that as they escaped, “the smoke conditions were black as night, and at one point fire was over the top of the engine.”
Many experienced firefighters described unprecedented fire activity. “The wind had shifted and increased speed. Correspondingly, extreme fire behavior was observed, which astounded even the most experienced firefighters at Twisp,” wrote the authors.
One firefighter, with nine years of experience in firefighting in the area, recalled 60-foot flame lengths and stated, “I have never seen fire move this fast.”
As the various crews tried to evacuate, the radio became overloaded and those in charge didn’t know where all the engines and individuals were. “Too many firefighters were trying to use the radio at the same time for anyone to communicate effectively,” according to the report.
A map of the fire progression shows that the fire was just 2 acres at 12:30 p.m. and had grown to 32 acres at 2 p.m., when it was still burning mostly west of Woods Canyon. But between 2:45 and 3 p.m., the fire grew dramatically, from 105 acres to 264 acres, and engulfed Woods Canyon Road.
A bulldozer crew near the top of Woods Canyon took refuge in a garage and then escaped and deployed their fire shelters when they realized the building was about to collapse. Two of the three firefighters shared a shelter.
Another firefighter who escaped on foot was apparently the first to encounter the severely burned firefighter (presumably Daniel Lyon, although he is not identified in the report), who had escaped from the engine and was calling for help. Paramedics stationed lower on the road went to his aid and an entrapment was reported.
Firefighters who went up the road to look for the group in the fire shelters saw skid marks and discovered the engine off the road with the rear door on the driver’s side wide open. The engine was still burning and the area was all black. The firefighters confirmed there were three fatalities — Tom Zbyszewski, Rick Wheeler and Andrew Zajac, who were found in the burned-over vehicle.
All firefighters at the scene were ordered to disengage at 3:08 p.m. Shortly after that an evacuation was ordered for the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.
“There were many traumatized people on the fire,” including a Forest Service incident commander who was not relieved until 9:30 p.m., according to the report.
Complexity and turmoil
Details in the report provide a glimpse into the complex and sometimes chaotic circumstances of firefighting.
Firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 6, the Forest Service, and DNR all responded to the fire, but they all use different radio frequencies. “The fire had started in an area covered by two interagency wildland fire dispatch centers. Resources arrived on scene with different repeater frequencies loaded in their radios. After the location of the fire was plotted, this frequency confusion had to be sorted out,” wrote the authors.
As the firefighters spread out, they tried to maintain communication. “Resources on both the right and left sides of the fire were still trying to ensure that their radios were programmed with the correct frequencies so that they would all be able to communicate with each other. No adequate procedure exists to resolve this issue; crews adapted in real time to find a functional solution,” wrote the authors.
At one point, a firefighter coordinating with a helicopter doing bucket drops did not know that the helicopter had left the area to refuel.
Firefighters on the Twisp River Fire also had access to different weather forecasts. Some had heard only a general forecast for the fire region, while others heard a local forecast that predicted a wind shift between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
The incident commanders on Twisp River did not have access to the forecast about the wind shift, noted the authors. The report says that other firefighters may have discounted the weather information “based on their individual experience with perceived weather forecast inaccuracies in that area.”
While the report presents information matter-of-factly, without assigning significance to any one factor, one finding is set out in a box:
“Dispatch held the departure of the fixed-wing aerial resources (tankers and lead plane) at the airport until the air attack reported on scene. Ground resources and air attack were unaware that the fixed-wing resources were being held. When air attack arrived over the fire, the pilot noticed a lot of up-air — more than he had ever experienced before. He later wondered if the up-air he experienced was a precursor to the extreme fire behavior event to come.”
Plans changed with fire growth
For the first two hours, the right flank of the fire — on Woods Canyon Road, where the entrapment occurred — was less active than the left flank to the west. Crews went up Woods Canyon Road, which climbs steeply and has several switchbacks in the 1/2 mile before it dead-ends, to scout and plan structure protection using helicopter bucket drops.
A group near the bottom of the road also discussed the predicted wind shift and planned to go back down Woods Canyon Road for an escape route.
Meanwhile, a DNR bulldozer crew was creating a fire line higher on Woods Canyon Road, on the west side of the road. Most firefighters were assigned to put out spot fires on the lower portion of the road until the dozer line was complete.
Shortly thereafter, Engine 642 went to assist with structure protection near the top of the road. Other firefighters were arriving to protect other houses. “Plans were changing rapidly, and the coordination of resources was becoming more complex. New resources had arrived, and organizational conditions were changing,” according to the report.
A firefighter who’d been working on the left flank described the wind shift at about 2:45 p.m. “We talked about it at some point in the day, so a lightbulb went off that this was probably the wind switch. I stood there and watched. My flank of fire had calmed down and was no longer the priority. I noticed the smoke starting to blow the other way; [it] wasn’t cranking, but I got the feeling things [were] changing,” he was quoted as saying.
A member of the dozer crew near the top of the road also detected the wind shift and ordered his crewmembers to take refuge in a nearby house. It was so smoky at times that it was hard to use aircraft.
Most of the air resources left the fire thinking no one had been seriously injured and most resources on the fire “thought disaster had been averted,” according to the report.
The Forest Service/DNR team is continuing to analyze information and talk to additional wildland fire specialists, including those outside the agencies.
The agencies issued the status report now because it will take many months before their final report and recommendations are complete.
Incident commanders and firefighters are described in the report only by their agency role or the area where they were deployed; virtually no one is identified by name in the report. The authors also are not named.
The Forest Service has been using the Learning Report approach since 2013 to see if changes in firefighting can prevent future fatalities and injuries. “Prevention is not as easy as learning what people should or should not have done at a specific incident. It requires a thorough examination of the system that put people in positions where they felt that their actions were the best option,” wrote the authors.
The status report is available online at www.wildfirelessons.net by searching for “Twisp River.”