August 22, 2015 - 9:30 AM
TWISP, Wash. - Officials in Washington state hope an easing winds forecast for Saturday will allow them to get a better handle on severe wildfires that left three firefighters dead and have been so chaotic that crews haven't been able to estimate how many homes have been destroyed.
Thousands of people in towns across north-central Washington state remained under evacuation orders as strong winds drove flames across parched ground late this week. Resources were so strained that on Saturday fire officials planned to provide basic fire training to about 200 volunteers who have machinery like backhoes and bulldozers so they can use them to help dig fire lines.
The complex of fires grew more than 100 square miles in a single day. Power outages affected several areas, making it more difficult to notify residents about evacuation orders, and the overall situation was too chaotic to even track how many homes had burned — though officials hoped to make progress of that front Saturday.
"We have lost them, but I don't know how many," Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. "We've got no idea."
Three firefighters — Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac — died Wednesday when flames consumed their crashed vehicle in Washington state. Four others were injured in the canyon, one critically. But their firefighting brothers and sisters had little time to mourn as raging fires forced entire communities to flee their homes 60 miles away.
As conditions worsened, emergency officials ordered evacuations in Okanogan, with 2,500 residents, as well as Tonasket, a community of 1,000 people, and its surrounding area. Officials also began a Spanish-language effort, on social media as well as in printed fliers, to get fire information to immigrant orchard workers.
Not everyone who was told to leave was willing to go.
"I've been up for like 40 hours, and I was very nervous, very concerned because (the fire) was going to take everything we have, us and the rest of our friends," said Al Dodson, who stayed home despite evacuation orders in Twisp, 40 miles west of Okanogan.
Winds blew at 35 mph or more late in the week, but those were expected to ease to 8 to 12 mph overnight and on Saturday, fire spokeswoman Cindy Neff said. Red flag warnings in the area were expected to expire, but the weekend was nevertheless expected to be hot.
Nearly 29,000 firefighters — 3,000 of them in Washington — are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought-and heat-stricken West, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California. Thirteen people have died.
There are more firefighters on the ground this season than ever before, and the U.S. government is spending more than $150 million a week on fire suppression, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
It's not enough. Additional personnel and equipment were being brought in from abroad, and Washington state officials have called for volunteers who own and can operate equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers.
In addition, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing federal help for 11 Washington counties and four Native American tribes.
The three firefighters who died were based in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, forest spokeswoman Carrie McCausland said. They belonged to specialized crews that immediately assess fire scenes and report back to commanders.
The crews were in the canyon in two vehicles and on foot when the flames raced toward them. One vehicle made it out safely, but the other, carrying the three firefighters who were killed, crashed. The four firefighters who were injured were among those who fled on foot, Rogers said.
Wheeler, 31, the oldest of the three, started fighting fires to save money for college and realized he could dedicate his life to something that had meaning, said the Rev. Joanne Coleman Campbell, his pastor at Wenatchee First United Methodist Church.
"He fell in love with that and decided he wanted to make it his career," Coleman Campbell said.
This was Wheeler and his wife Celeste's second year living in Wenatchee after he graduated in 2013 from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He was a seasonal worker with hopes of becoming a permanent wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.
He had been fighting fires for a decade. His father, who died when Wheeler was 2, was a firefighter, too.
Zbyszewski also followed in his father's footsteps. He was the youngest of the three who died, a 20-year-old physics major at Whitman College with an acting bent. He was due to return to school next week.
Zajac, 26, was the son of a Methodist minister from Downers Grove, Illinois. He was in his second year as a professional wildland firefighter for the Forest Service and earned a master's degree in biology last year from the University of South Dakota.
Zajac and his wife, Jenn, were married last year after hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Coast Trail together in 2013, according to a statement from his family released by the Forest Service.
"We are saddened that a life with such promise has ended so soon and we will miss him deeply," the statement said.
Johnson reported from Seattle. AP writers Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, and Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Washington, contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2015