An investigator’s report on the cause of the fatal Twisp River Fire revealed that a tree branch contacting a power line ignited, dropped to the ground, and started the fire west of Twisp, Washington.
Three firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service were killed inside their vehicle August 19, 2015 when they were attempting to escape from the rapidly spreading fire. A fourth firefighter exited the vehicle and ran to safety. He was severely burned, but survived, hospitalized for three months. The deceased were Tom Zbyszewki, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31. The injured firefighter was Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, Washington.
The Seattle Times obtained a copy of the investigation report through a public records request. The entire 38-page document can be seen here.
On November 18, the day a preliminary report was released for the Twisp River Fire, the firefighter who was severely burned on the incident west of Twisp, Washington left the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Daniel Lyon Jr., 25, one of four people in Engine 642 assigned to the fire on August 19, left the vehicle after it crashed while the crew was trying to drive to a safety zone through a very active part of the fire. He made his way through flames to a road where he was found by another firefighter. The two of them ran down the road until they found an Emergency Medical Technician Paramedic who provided initial treatment before Mr. Lyon was transported by ground ambulance and then a helicopter to the burn unit in Seattle.
The other three firefighters in Engine 642 died in the vehicle, according to the corner’s report, from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. They were Richard Wheeler, 31; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20. All four were employees of the U.S. Forest Service working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.
After spending three months in the hospital and undergoing 11 surgeries, including several skin grafts, Mr. Lyon still has a long road to recovery ahead of him. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body. The tips of his fingers had to be amputated because his hands were so badly burned, said Dr. Nicole Gibran, director of the burn center, at a news conference on Wednesday.
In addition to the four firefighters in Engine 642, a three-person dozer crew was entrapped when a wind shift caused the fire to spread in their direction. The extreme fire behavior that resulted, forced all fire personnel on the right flank of the fire to seek safety zones — if they could.
As the fire overtook them, the dozer crew initially parked the dozer near a garage and took refuge between the structure and the tractor. When one of them exited the dozer, he left his shelter, thinking he would not need it. Intense heat drove the three of them inside the garage. After the building began burning, they went outside and huddled under two fire shelters on a dirt road.
Below is an excerpt from the preliminary report, from the section about the engine crew’s accident:
…The right side “point of contact” saw Engine 642 driving up to him, so he whistled and swung his hand over his head, indicating they needed to turn around and get out. The “point of contact” yelled, “RTO! [Reverse tool order!],” meaning that all crews needed to follow their escape route back down the road to the safety zone. Engine 642 turned around in the road and was the first engine to head toward the escape route. One of the other 3 engines turned around at the “Y,” and another engine drove up to house 4 to turn around. The fourth engine remained at house 3.
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. 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 [Mr. Lyon] got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road…
The document released on November 18 is called an “Interagency Learning Review Status Report”, one of many stages of the Learning Review process that was adopted by the USFS in 2013. It only includes facts, some of them, that have been developed so far in the investigation. It contains no conclusions or recommendations, and does not place blame. It does, however, present some very general “questions to initiate dialogue” related to protecting structures, the use of Type 3 Incident Commanders on a developing fire, communications (as usual in EVERY report), and the use of fire weather forecasts. The narrative in the report is “abridged”, with the full narrative expected to be part of the final report. Eventually a Safety Action Plan with recommendations will released and made available to the public, according to the preliminary report.
Could the fatal fire behavior near Twisp, Washington have been predicted?
One scientist, Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, thinks the erratic winds on Aug. 19 that fueled the flames that killed three firefighters were forecasted at least a day before.
In a recent blog post, Mass gave an in-depth analysis of wind patterns and weather on Aug. 19 to back-up his assertion that all crews should have been pulled from the line before the winds picked up.
“I believe the windshift/wind acceleration that occurred Wed. afternoon was entirely predictable. It was not random, it was not extreme or a new normal,” Mass wrote. “My profession needs to work with the fire community to ensure such tragedies are prevented.”
The goal of the blog isn’t to place blame, Mass said, but instead to highlight an important issue while there are still crews fighting fires around the Pacific Northwest.
Mass’ analysis of the models shows a major wind transition across the Cascades between noon and 3 p.m. But Mass also found weather prediction models released at 5 p.m. the day before that predicted the same shift in winds.
“Thus, wildfire folks should have been pre-warned of a major wind shift and acceleration and probably should have been pulled back that afternoon,” Mass said.
Three firefighters who were killed on Aug. 19 will be honored in a memorial service in Wenatchee, Washington on Sunday, Aug. 30.
Firefighters Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Richard Wheeler, 31, and Andrew Zajac, 26, died last week when their apparatus crashed as they were trying to escape a fire near Twisp, Washington. One firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, Washington, is in critical condition with third degree burns over over 60 to 65 percent of his body.
Since their deaths, at least six investigations of the incident have been launched. On Aug. 23, the U.S. Forest Service released more information about the deaths of the three firefighters. Read that post here.
The service for the firefighters will begin at 1 p.m. at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee.
On Sunday afternoon the U.S. Forest Service released additional information about the fatalities of the three wildland firefighters that occurred in the Twisp River Fire August 19 near Twisp, Washington.
The fire was reported at 12:30 p.m. PT, August 19, 2015. Between 2:45 and 3 p.m. the wind direction changed and the fire activity increased. At about 3 p.m. firefighters were entrapped by the fire, and around 4 p.m. fatalities and injuries were reported and one injured firefighter was airlifted to a hospital.
Engine 642, from the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest, was found upright 40 feet below Woods Canyon Road. It had been burned over and three deceased firefighters were inside. Two deployed fire shelters were in the general area, but at a press conference, the leader of the USFS investigation team, John Phipps, who currently serves as Station Director of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, said he did not know where they were found in relation to the firefighters.
The deceased have been identified as Tom Zbyszewki, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31. One firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, Washington, is in critical condition with third degree burns over over 60 to 65 percent of his body. Three other injured firefighters were treated at a hospital and released.