Wildfires roar throughout Washington state, governor says

Updated 8:54 PM EDT, Thu August 20, 2015

Story highlights

NEW: Dad says critically injured firefighter loves outdoors, serving others

The 3 firefighters killed ranged in age from 20 to 31, Forest Service says

An Army soldier battling the fires says the deaths show "how serious the situation is"

(CNN) —  

Gov. Jay Inslee painted a dire picture as more than 100 wildfires roared throughout Washington state on Thursday, a day after three firefighters were killed in one fire.

“I want to say this is an unprecedented cataclysm in our state,” Inslee said Thursday. “There are 390,000 acres burning. Last year was bad with 250,000 acres.”

More than 3,000 fire personnel and 26 planes and other aerial equipment battled the wildfires Thursday, he said. At least 110 buildings have burned down, CNN affiliate KIRO reported.

“In days to come, we know things will be hard, and we thank everyone who are doing everything they can to make sure the Evergreen State doesn’t become an ever fire state,” the governor said at a press conference videotaped by the affiliate.

Referring to the deaths of the three firefighters, Inslee said: “We know these fires have burned a big hole in our state’s heart.”

No imminent relief was expected, however, as the National Weather Service projected stronger winds and extreme fire danger through Friday.

“We anticipate the fire weather today will be worse than it was yesterday,” wildfire incident commander Chris Schulte said Thursday. “We should have more rate of spread and more acreage burned than yesterday.”

In the latest round of evacuations, residents of the Okanogan County community of Malott were ordered Friday morning to leave the area immediately because of an advancing fire, authorities said.

The county is where the three firefighters died. The Okanogan County emergency manager said a day earlier that the fire was advancing so fast, evacuees were advised “not to wait for door-to-door notification.”

Three firefighters killed

Three firefighters who set out to battle the Twisp Fire on Wednesday fell victim to a wildfire that was unpredictable and fast, an inferno that was hard to dodge, officials said.

“It was a hell storm up here,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers told CNN affiliate KXLY, standing not far from the flames. “The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction, and then they would shift.”

The firefighters were on an “initial attack” operation when they had a vehicle accident. Rogers said the flames then overtook them.

“We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters,” said spokesman Mike Williams of the U.S. Forest Service. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and fellow crew members of these brave firefighters.”

The U.S. Forest Service identified them as 20-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, 26-year-old Andrew Zajac, and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler.

Reflecting on these deaths ahead of her deployment to fight fires in eastern Washington, U.S. Army Lt. Caroline West said, “It was really humbling and brings home how serious the situation is that we’re are going into.”

Then the 23-year-old West added, “But I do have to say that we feel we are really well prepared.”

Four more injured

Four other firefighters have been injured in the blaze near the village of Twisp, but only one was taken to a hospital: Daniel Lyon Jr., 25, who suffered burns to about 60% of his body and is in critical condition at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

His father said it was his first season fighting wildfires. He is also a reserve police officer in Milton, near Tacoma.

“He loves the outdoors and serving his community,” Daniel Lyon Sr. told reporters. “He’s just been a great, great, wonderful child.”

Late Wednesday, fire crews from multiple agencies continued to battle the wildfire, which had incinerated a few hundred acres. “It’s not going out tonight,” Rogers said. “And the winds are still blowing.”

The flames had not reached Twisp, but they were headed in that direction, Rogers said. About 1,000 people there and in the town of Winthrop, about 10 miles away, have been evacuated.

Washington declared a disaster on a state level in June in anticipation of a harsh wildfire season stoked by drought, and it mobilized more than 300 National Guard personnel to assist firefighters.

“The firefighters are digging trenches, putting out fires,” she said. “The sheer amount of physical labor is pretty intense. The hours that they work and physical stress can be compared to our (soldiers) being out in the field.”

Disaster declaration

At least 11 wildfires were burning as of Wednesday. They had razed 235,000 acres of eastern Washington state land, officials said. Three of them, including two of the largest, were burning in Okanogan County. Wildfires have destroyed at least 50 homes and 60 other structures in the state this year.

Washington declared a disaster on a state level in June in anticipation of a harsh wildfire season stoked by drought, and it mobilized more than 300 National Guard personnel to assist firefighters.

Being careful about deploying 200 soldiers

In much of the Western United States, firefighters are shouldering a similar burden, as about 80 wildfires – ranging from as small as a few dozen acres to larger than 100,000 acres – are burning, from Alaska to Oregon, Idaho to Montana, according to the national fire tracking website InciWeb.

About 200 active duty military personnel will help fight the wildfires in seven Western states, the first time since 2006 that soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, have been deployed for such duty.

The extreme fire danger, however, is delaying their deployment to the fires.

“The fire agencies are concerned that these fires could blow into extreme fire behavior. And that creates a situation where we have to think twice about where we put the military crews,” said spokesman Ken Frederick of the National Interagency Fire Center.

“Even though they will be led by experienced crew leaders, we have to be careful about putting them in a dynamic, complicated fire situation,” he added.

One concern is communication between the military and other fire crews. The soldiers may be unfamiliar with communication practices among veteran firefighters, Frederick said.

“When a fire starts going and it starts crowning, racing uphill, it gets loud, many people describe it as like a freight train,” Frederick said. “It’s a signal that everyone on the line has to pay attention.

“These (soldiers) are brand new crews with just three days training. We cannot treat them like experienced crews. They are wonderful people, doing a good job, but they are working in an environment they are not used to and we have to be safe.”

10,000 firefighters battling in one state

Down the coast from Washington, in California, where record extreme drought has hung on for four years, the fires are also bad.

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 firefighters battled 16 wildfires in California, authorities said.

It only takes a single spark to lead whole swaths to burn – a cigarette, a smoldering extinguished campfire, a ricocheting bullet.

A faulty gas water heater caused a wildfire that joined another blaze and, together, they became one of the season’s biggest blazes in northern California.

The Rocky Fire burned almost 70,000 acres, or 109 square miles in 16 days this month.

It forced more than 13,000 residents to evacuate and ultimately destroyed 43 homes and 53 outbuildings, authorities said.

Another monster fire, the River Complex Fire, was 20% contained on Wednesday after burning 45,477 acres in northwestern California.

Authorities said lightning caused that fire.

CNN’s Tony Marco, Greg Morrison, Melanie Whitley, Greg Botelho and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.