Homeowners frantically asked for help as a swiftly moving wildfire headed toward their houses, 911 audio calls show, and dispatchers tried to clear up confusion over injured firefighters from a blaze in Washington state that ultimately killed three firefighters.
The Aug. 19 fire near Twisp, Washington, also injured four firefighters - one critically.
The dispatch recordings were released to The Associated Press on Friday by the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office in response to a records request.
“Send somebody fast please,” one of the first callers to report the fire told dispatchers. “I just looked out my window, and the fire is coming up the hill right towards my house.”
A short time later, one of the first-responders warned dispatchers of the risk the fire was posing to “resources,” an industry term for firefighters and equipment.
“We’ve got houses up here, but we can’t get resources up here and get them out safely,” the firefighter from a local fire district said after describing his location in the rural, forested neighborhood. “And there’s nothing, there’s no safe zones up here.”
Several major fires were already burning in the region when the 911 calls for the Twisp River blaze began pouring in during the noon hour on Aug. 19. When it was first reported, the wildfire was only about two acres - slightly smaller than an average city block. But it quickly grew, fed by winds and the trees that covered the hilly terrain, which were left tinder-dry after months of severe drought.
Within a few hours of the first 911 call, an emergency responder asked dispatchers to send an ambulance for a burn victim. Around the same time, a woman with the Washington Department of Natural Resources called to report that firefighters were trapped and needed an air ambulance.
Dispatchers sent a ground ambulance and an aircraft ambulance, and then focused on trying to figure out whether the separate reports were referring to injuries occurring at the same site or two separate incidents. The location provided for each was nearby but not identical. Meanwhile, the fire crews at the scene weren’t responding to the dispatcher’s calls for clarification.
The dispatcher ultimately called another agency’s dispatch center to try to find the answer.
“Yeah, we don’t have any confirmation on number of patients yet,” the second dispatcher replied. “I’m looking through the log and everybody here, we haven’t heard confirmation of numbers yet other than the one, but definitely I did hear ‘multiple.’ “
The confusion was eventually resolved when medics arrived at the scene. Not long after, a law enforcement officer called the dispatch center with tragic news.
“Listen, have you been in contact about any dead firefighters yet? Got any information on that?” he asked the dispatcher. “Listen up, here’s what I need then. We got three dead Forest Service firefighters, so you need to notify the coroner. Try not to do it over the air, do it over the phone.”
“Oh god … that’s terrible,” the coroner said, when the dispatch center gave him the news.
Twenty-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, 26-year-old Andrew Zajac and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler were killed after their engine crashed down an embankment and was caught by the quickly moving fire.
Their cause of death was smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, the Okanagan coroner told The Associated Press on Friday.
Daniel Lyon, 25, was critically injured with burns over 60 percent of his body when he got caught by the flames nearby. He remained in critical but stable condition on Friday after undergoing two successful burn surgeries, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Three other firefighters who were with Lyon also sustained burns.
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho, and Bellisle reported from Seattle, Washington.
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