Electric co-op in Washington reaches settlement to pay $1.1 million for suppression of fire that killed three firefighters

Earlier, power companies agreed to pay the seriously injured lone survivor $5 million

Twisp River Fire map
Photo from the report on the Twisp River Fire.

The Okanogan County Electric Co-op has agreed to a $1.1 million settlement for the suppression costs of the deadly 2015 Twisp River Fire.

U.S. Attorney William D. Hyslop announced that the settlement had been reached with Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, Inc. (“OCEC”) and its insurer, requiring the payment of $1.1 million to the United States in fire suppression costs resulting from the Twisp River Fire that began on August 19, 2015 in north-central Washington.

The $1.1 million recovers a large portion of the U.S. Forest Service’s costs incurred in suppressing the fire. It was part of a larger settlement of claims that were brought separately by other plaintiffs, including U.S. Forest Service firefighter Daniel Lyon and the State of Washington, who sought to recover damages for personal injury and property damage caused by the fire.

The Twisp River Fire ultimately burned approximately 11,200 acres, claimed the lives of three USFS firefighters, and severely injured Mr. Lyon. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body, but three other firefighters in the same engine 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 USFS working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.

The US Attorney claimed the Twisp River Fire ignited due to contact between a tree branch and OCEC’s electrical distribution line. He further claimed OCEC failed to properly maintain a vegetation management plan designed to detect and prevent the tree branch from contacting the distribution line. OCEC denied these allegations.

In January Mr. Lyon reached a settlement with two utility companies, OCEC and Douglas County PUD, just before an appeal of his $100 million civil suit was to be heard before the state Supreme Court. In that settlement the companies agreed to pay $5 million.

From the Wenatchee World, when the $5 million settlement was announced in January:

“I am very grateful that my case calls attention to the plight of injured first responders,” said Lyon, who was burned over most of his body and has undergone more than a dozen surgeries and 100 medical procedures. “I am also grateful my case has reached a settlement so that I can now move on with my life knowing I will have the resources I need for the future.”

Last July, his attorneys, in an appeals brief, argued the Professional Rescue Doctrine that largely bars such claims violates the state constitution, which gives people equal protection under the law and offers the right to seek compensation for damages.

Lyon’s attorneys note that courts in some other states, where the doctrine once held sway, have opted to throw it out.

An attorney for one of the two defendants, in an earlier interview, says the wounds Lyon suffered — however grievous — resulted from risks inherent to the dangerous job of firefighting.

“The law does not allow them (professional first responders) to sue — and there are good policy reasons behind that,” said A. Grant Lingg, who represents the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. “You don’t want the people who start a fire to be afraid to call the fire department for fear that that an injured first responder will sue them.”

The video below is about the January settlement.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Washington DNR says powerline caused the fatal Twisp River Fire

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.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

Twisp River Fire: report released as injured firefighter leaves hospital

Twisp River Fire map

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. 

Dozer Crew two fire shelters

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.

The preliminary report released on November 18 can be downloaded here.

The images above are from the report.

Coroner’s report for Twisp River Fire fatlities

From the Seattle Times:

The three firefighters killed in a wildfire near Twisp, Okanogan County, last week died from smoke inhalation and “thermal injuries,” or burns, Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez said Friday.

The firefighters were driving up a steep gravel road and crashed down a 40-foot embankment, where the fire consumed them. The manner of death was classified as accidental.

Those killed Aug. 19 were Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, 20.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Carl.

Given forecast, meteorologist thinks crews should have been pulled from Twisp fire

twisp river fire fatalities
The general area of the fatalities. They were found 40 feet off Woods Canyon Road. The 3-D map is looking north.

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.

Cliff Mass blog, Aug. 30, 2015
Cliff Mass blog, Aug. 30, 2015

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.

Weekend memorial service to honor three firefighters killed in Washington

twisp river fire fatalities
The general area of the fatalities. They were found 40 feet off Woods Canyon Road. The 3-D map is looking north.

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.