Firefighters killed in Twisp River Fire identified

The three U.S. Forest Service firefighters that were overrun by fire and killed on the Twisp River Fire in Washington August 19 have been identified as Tom Zbyszewki, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31.

Their vehicle crashed while fighting a fire west of Twisp, Washington. Fox News reported “Authorities gave few details, shedding no light, for example, on the crash, other than to say that it was not the accident itself that killed the victims, but the fire.”

On Thursday, after a team of investigators assessed the accident site, the bodies of the three firefighters were removed in separate ambulances and transported from the scene in a procession of fire engines and other emergency vehicles.

Four other firefighters were injured, one very seriously. King5 had additional information about the serious injury:

Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup [Washington], was airlifted to Harborview Wednesday in critical condition. Doctors say he suffered third degree burns to over 50 to 75 percent of his body.

Doctors said he was in the resuscitation phase, receiving a lot of fluids, and doctors were trying to stabilize his condition. If his condition improves, doctors hope to move him to the operation phase, where they will remove some of the burns from his body.

Lyon had only been a firefighter for a few months with the U.S. Forest Service before heading to Central Washington to battle the Okanogan Complex Fire.

Q13 reported that the other three injured firefighters were treated at a hospital and released.

The investigation into the accident is being conducted by a team led by John Phipps who currently serves as Station Director of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado.


Investigation into the three fatalities in Washington begins

A team that will be investigating the August 19 fatalities of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters on the Twisp River Fire in Washington is being assembled. According to an article at OregonLive they will be using a fairly new protocol that we covered in August of 2014, called the Coordinated Response Protocol, or CRP. The controversial process minimizes traumatic impacts on witnesses, coworkers and others close to the tragedy, but strives to avoid developing causes and conclusions. As we reported last August, Ivan Pupulidy, one of the developers of the CRP, called causes and conclusions “traditional nonsense”.

Aside from the controversial nature of the CRP, OregonLive has a very informative article about the investigation into the Twisp River Fire, and how the team will be organized. Below is an excerpt:

…A team of investigators is arriving Thursday to begin the recently adopted Coordinated Response Protocol. The new rules seek to eliminate missteps on fatal investigations of the past.

“My heart breaks over the loss of life,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense.”

Officials often found that people assigned to investigate deaths or serious accidents were so focused on the task at hand they were insensitive to the victims involved during the interview process. The goal is to learn from what happened and take steps to prevent mistakes from happening again.

“It’s a smoother way to help the people involved because they are obviously traumatized,” said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Ferris’ colleague, Jennifer Jones, will join the investigation Thursday as the information coordinator.

“It means the people affected by the incident don’t have to sit through 12 interviews by five or six different people,” Ferris said during a phone interview Thursday morning with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The process were implemented with the July 30 death of David Ruhl, a U.S. Forest Service captain from South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. He died in a wildfire in the Modoc National Forest of Northern California.

A learning review replaces the serious accident investigation process with hope to “minimize the impact that reviews can have on the personnel who were involved in the incident while simultaneously meeting organizational and ethical requirements,” according to Forest Service documents.

Officials also hope briefing victims’ families during the new process relieves tensions that occurred in the past.

The goal is to provide “as clear a picture of what influenced actions and decisions as possible” even if it results in “uncovering hard truths that might appear contrary to protecting the agency,” the documents say…

The graphic below (of strangely faceless people) is from the USFS’ description of the CRP process.

CRP team structure


Three firefighters killed in Washington wildfire

(Originally published at 6:12 p.m. PT, August 19, 2015; updated at 8:12 a.m. PT, August 20, 2015)

Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed Wednesday, August 19, while they were fighting the Twisp River fire west of Twisp, Washington. The agency confirmed that they were “engaged in initial attack operations and were involved in a vehicle accident when it is believed that the fire overtook the vehicle.”

According to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, the three Forest Service deaths occurred in a fire on Washington Department of Natural Resources land.

Four additional firefighters were injured: one USFS, two DNR, and one DNR contractor.

Evacuations of the 3,000 residents of two nearby towns were ordered, Twisp and Winthrop.

The names have not been released, pending notification of next of kin.

“We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters,” said Mike Williams, Forest Supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.  “We are working with County and State partners to notify the families of those lost.  Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and fellow crewmembers of these brave firefighters.”

The Forest Service said a national incident management team has been ordered.

Q13 Fox reported that the county “sheriff said the wind suddenly shifted and the firefighters became trapped as the fire was turned back on them”.

The rapidly spreading new fire that caused the evacuations is represented by the six red dots in the map below, 6 miles northwest of Twisp. Heat from the fire was detected by a satellite at 1:05 p.m. PT, August 19. Click on the map to see a larger version.

Map fires near Twisp

Fires near Twisp, Washington. The dots represent heat detected by a satellite, with the red ones being the most recent, recorded at 1:05 p.m. PT on August 19, 2015. (click to enlarge)

Evacuation information can be found at the Okanogan County Emergency Management Facebook page.

The first articles to report the fatalities were time-stamped shortly before 6 p.m. PT, August 19.  The reports say shifting winds may have contributed to the entrapment of the firefighters. The weather station between Twisp and Winthrop, NCSW1, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Wednesday recorded winds from all directions, starting from the north at 8 a.m., the wind direction changed going clockwise until they were from the north-northwest at 5 p.m. The wind speeds were light, at 1 to 6 mph until 5 p.m. when they increased to 10 with gusts to 20 mph. The relative humidity was in the mid-teens and the high temperature was 95 degrees.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the injured and deceased firefighters.


72-hour report released for August 8 firefighter fatality

The U.S. Forest Service has released a preliminary 72-hour report on the line of duty death of firefighter Michael Scott Hallenbeck who was killed by a falling tree August 8 in California.

Below is the text from a memo dated August 12, 2015 signed by Thomas G. Wagner, the leader of the Coordinated Response Team assigned to the accident. Click on the image to see a larger version.

72-hour report, Hallenbeck LODD


Firefighter killed by falling tree

(Originally posted at 7:30 a.m. PT, August 9, 2015; Updated at 9 p.m. PT, August 9, 2015 with the name of the firefighter.)

Another wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service has died in the line of duty. Early Sunday morning the agency announced that at approximately 5:30 p.m. on August 8 two firefighters were struck by a falling tree during the initial attack on a new fire, the Sierra Fire, in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) in California. One was killed and the other was treated and released from a hospital.

The firefighter has been identified as 21-year old Michael “Mike” Hallenbeck of Shingle Springs, California. Mr. Hallenbeck was a member of Organized Crew 36 on the LTBMU.

His family released a statement on Sunday:

Mikey was so excited to become a firefighter. When he first found out he had the position, he spent every day hiking with a pack to prepare. Mikey loved the outdoors and sports. He played football, basketball, soccer, ice hockey, tennis and golf. He also loved to snowboard and hike. He spent the last two ski seasons working for Sierra Ski Resort. Now he has had a greater calling. We are so very proud he stepped up to work hard and be brave to put others before himself. We cannot even begin to express the pain our family is going through and we ask for the respect of our privacy as we go through this devastating ordeal.

This is the second USFS firefighter to die on a wildfire in California in the last 10 days. On July 30 David Ruhl was entrapped by a fire and killed during the initial attack on the Frog Fire on the Modoc National Forest in northeast California.

Our sincere condolences go out to the friends and family of the firefighters that passed away in both of these fatalities.


Fallen firefighter returns to Rapid City

David Ruhl

The aircraft carrying the Ruhl family passes under crossed water streams at the Air Tanker Base at the Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thursday a fallen firefighter returned home. The remains of David (Dave) Ruhl, killed July 30 while fighting a wildfire in northern California, were brought back to Rapid City. His wife and two children were flown Wednesday morning from Rapid City to Redding, California to receive the remains that had been transported in a procession from Mt. Shasta to the Northern California Service Center, a firefighting hub in that part of the state. Then the family got back on the King Air operated by the State of South Dakota and flew back to Rapid City.

Many firefighters were present at the Air Tanker Base to honor David Ruhl. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Many firefighters were present at the Air Tanker Base to honor David Ruhl. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After it landed, the aircraft taxied to the Air Tanker Base and passed under crossed water streams provided by two of the airport’s crash rescue fire engines. The plane was met by dozens of firefighters standing at attention. A member of the Honor Guard first exited the aircraft carrying the cremated remains of Mr. Ruhl and transferred them to one of the firefighters. Then Mrs. Ruhl and the two children came down the aircraft stairs and passed through two rows of saluting firefighters as they made their way to the green Forest Service engine in which Mr. Ruhl served as Captain.

David Ruhl

The remains of David Ruhl are transferred at the Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Dave Ruhl family

The Ruhl family walks through a corridor formed by saluting firefighters. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The engine then became part of a procession that began with about a dozen engines and other emergency vehicles that had been parked at the Air Tanker Base. As it made its way out of the airport it picked up at least another two dozen other vehicles, mostly engines, that were waiting in the “cell phone” parking area. Making their way down to Highway 44 one of the Tatanka Hotshots’ crew carriers tagged on, and when the procession passed the Rapid Valley Fire Department even more joined.  Eventually the family was escorted to their home in Rapid City.

Other events that are scheduled:

Sunday, August 9, 2015 – Procession and Memorial Service In Rapid City, South Dakota: A procession will begin at 1 p.m. from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 520 Cathedral Drive in Rapid City (map) to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center (map). The route will go north along 5th Street and conclude in the west parking lot of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Visitation will be at 2 p.m. at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, 444 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Rapid City, SD 57701, followed by a memorial service which will begin at 3 p.m.

The memorial service will be streamed live on the internet on South Dakota Public Broadcasting at

Monday, August 10, Funeral: Mr. Ruhl’s funeral will be held at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

More information about the fatality.