TWISP, Wash. — A “hellstorm” of flames apparently enveloped a vehicle that crashed while carrying firefighters battling a blaze in Washington state, killing three of them during an explosive fire season in the arid West.
Four other firefighters were hurt, including one critically, on Wednesday as crews fought raging wildfires advancing on towns in the north-central part of the state, some of the many blazes burning uncontrolled throughout the West.
Drought and heat have combined to make this fire season one of the most active in recent years. Nearly 29,000 firefighters are battling some 100 large blazes in states including Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California.
This season, 13 people have died battling wildfires, including the three in Washington, said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. She said it was a high number but could not immediately compare it to other years.
“Our firefighting personnel have been particularly hard hit this year,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling it an “extraordinarily challenging wildfire season.”
The deaths happened in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, but few details were released as officials notified family members.
“The firefighters were engaged in initial attack operations and were involved in a vehicle accident when it is believed that the fire overtook the vehicle,” said a statement from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, relaying information from Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the four injured also were involved in the crash.
The U.S. Forest Service statement identified the dead as agency firefighters. Of the injured, two are with the state Department of Natural Resources, one is a DNR contractor and one is a U.S. Forest Service employee.
“It was a hellstorm up here,” Rogers told Spokane news station KXLY-TV. “The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction and then it would shift. … It was tough on ’em up here.”
One firefighter remained in critical condition with severe burns Thursday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.
“He’s got a lot of family by the bedside, and I think that obviously helps and we’re hopeful,” she said.
The White House said President Barack Obama directed his administration to stay in touch with state and local officials and to provide federal assistance as necessary.
Gov. Jay Inslee requested a federal emergency declaration to provide more resources.
“My heart breaks over the loss of life,” Inslee said in a statement. “They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense.”
The news came after officials ordered about 1,300 people in the popular outdoor-recreation communities of Twisp and Wintrop to evacuate.
A stream of cars poured south out of Twisp as dark clouds of smoke loomed. Some people put sprinklers on their roofs to protect their homes, and others joined lines for gasoline that were several cars deep.
Steve Morse, who lives near the Twisp fire, said he watched flames “kind of hopscotching these ridges, working toward our house.” He called the firefighters’ deaths horrible.
“I can’t even imagine to lose your life fighting fire, it’s horrible for a family,” he said.
A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 50 square miles and prompted the evacuation of the town of Conconully, home to about 200 people 20 miles northwest of Omak, and an area south of Conconully to the Omak line.
To the south, more than 1,100 firefighters tackled a fire that topped 108 square miles and threatened the resort town of Chelan. Angela Seydel, a spokeswoman for Okanogan Emergency Management, said 4,000 homes in the region had been evacuated.
“It is really bad out there. The fires have just exploded,” she said Wednesday evening.
Authorities warned that more high winds Thursday could make conditions very challenging.
The National Weather Service warned about weather conditions that could fuel fires in eastern Washington through Friday. Temperatures were expected to climb above 90 degrees and relative humidity may drop as low as 14 percent.