WENATCHEE — The four U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were overtaken by the Twisp River Fire Aug. 19 did all they could but couldn't have saved themselves under the prevailing conditions.
That's the opinion of Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, whose office did its own investigation. The incident ended in the deaths of three of the firefighters and serious burns to the fourth, who remains hospitalized.
The U.S. Forest Service is conducting its own, internal review and expects to issue a final report this spring. Two other federal agencies are also investigating.
"In my opinion, there was nothing that could have been done," Rogers said in a voice mail Friday while on a hunting trip. "The weather was weird that day. The fire was busy. The wind did a 180-degree shift that day. Nobody expected it. They were in there trying to get people out. Protect homes. I think they did everything they were trained to do, and it just went terribly wrong. Officially, it will be the Forest Service's decision. As for us, it was death caused by wildfire."
Firefighters who died were Tom Zbyszewski, 20, of Carlton; Andrew Zajac, 26, of Winthrop; and Richard Wheeler, 31, of Wenatchee. The fourth, Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, was taken to Harborview Medical Center with third-degree burns to 60 percent of his body.
Lyon is now in satisfactory condition. He was recently moved to the hospital’s burn center, according to updates on the family’s “Caring Bridge” website.
He has undergone at least six surgeries to remove dead skin and apply skin grafts. His burns are reportedly healing nicely, and the family is hopeful he’ll be home by Thanksgiving, according to an Oct. 21 website post. He hasn’t been receiving visitors.
Forest Service investigators have begun drafting their final report, agency spokeswoman Cathy Dowd said Tuesday.
“We owe it to their families to make sure we have this information right. That’s why it takes so much time,” Dowd said.
The four firefighters were headed up Woods Canyon Road in a Forest Service vehicle at about 2:45 p.m. when the wind shifted 180 degrees, Forest Service officials said during an Aug. 23 news conference in Wenatchee.
The vehicle, a stout, crew-cab pickup fitted with hoses and pump, left the roadway on a curve as flames approached and headed down a 40-foot embankment onto state Department of Natural Resources land.
When rescuers arrived on the scene, they found three firefighters dead inside the vehicle, which was on its wheels. The left rear door was open. They found Lyon walking in the area of the burned-out vehicle.
Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez determined that the three died of smoke inhalation and burns.
Officials have said that no one witnessed the incident. They haven’t said who was driving the vehicle or why it left the roadway. Two other firefighters working in the area were burned, they said, but their injuries were not life-threatening.
The Forest Service has used a new form of internal fire investigation created and tested in 2013 but not used until this year.
The new investigative system isn’t focused on fault finding, but rather on learning from an incident so it won’t be repeated, Forest Service officials have said.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is conducting a separate investigation.
Rosemarie Olney, an OSHA spokeswoman, said Wednesday that fieldwork is finished. Officials at the agency's Bellevue office are now reviewing materials and evidence and writing the final report, which should be released by mid-February.
Until then, it's considered an "open and active investigation" and no further details will be released, Olney said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General is also investigating, Dowd said.
The Twisp River Fire was reported at 12:30 p.m., about two hours before the firefighters died. It burned 11,832 acres. Its cause is still under investigation.