Report examines events in fatal Washington state wildfire

SEATTLE — An initial report looking into the deaths of three firefighters in a rapidly expanding wildfire in Washington state says their engine crashed on a winding dirt road and was engulfed in flames.

The 24-page report by state and federal officials released Friday looking into the Aug. 19 deaths of the three U.S. Forest Service firefighters says the engine crew faced zero visibility before the crash near Twisp.

Twenty-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, 20, 26-year-old Andrew Zajac, and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler died. Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Lyon, also with the Forest Service, survived but sustained severe burns after getting out of the vehicle and going through flames.

“They kept driving downhill, but they had zero visibility, and the engine went off the road,” the report said. “The engine came to a stop, and the surviving firefighter got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road.”

The Seattle Times reported the document doesn’t assign blame or draw firm conclusions, but is part of a larger analysis by firefighting officials reviewing potential changes to methods and strategies.

Firefighting officials in the report say they’ll consider looking at possible changes to how crews fight fires in areas where homes are built in forested areas.

Officials say they want to better understand how weather predictions affected decisions for battling the Twisp fire.

The report notes that firefighters on Aug. 19 expected a shift in the wind in the afternoon.

“The wind had shifted and increased (the fire’s) speed,” the report said. “Correspondingly, extreme fire behavior was observed, which astounded even the most experienced firefighters at Twisp.”

The firefighters who died initially drove Engine 642 up the dead-end Woods Canyon Road. A coordinating crew member alerted crews that they needed to head back down the escape route, the report said.

Engine 642 turned around but crashed a short time later in the smoke, described in the report as “black as night.”

Lyon came out of the flames screaming to another firefighter: “We need help up there! Please, we need help!” the report said.

Several other fire engines on Woods Canyon Road made it out safely.

A three-person bulldozer crew trying to protect homes ended up deploying the two shelters they had and all fitting inside and survived with minor injuries. The report said at least one retardant drop reduced the heat felt by the dozer crew.

Tom Zbyszewski’s mother, Jennifer Zbyszewski, called the report “well-written and a good summary of what happened.”

She’s a Forest Service employee on the Methow Valley Ranger District, and has returned to work.

The agency says a longer narrative is being developed that will be released with the final report.

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