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Wash. Wildfire Kills 4 Firefighters

July 12, 2001

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WINTHROP, Wash. (AP) _ From the air, it wasn’t much more than a wisp of smoke reported by a pilot flying over the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. Snuffing it out was supposed to be a quick job for the 21 firefighters sent in.

But as the heat rose, the wind gained power. Within hours, the five-acre fire had blown into a raging inferno racing through the dry underbrush and pine needles of north-central Washington _ and four firefighters were dead.

``All of the firefighters were in a dire situation,″ said forest supervisor Sonny J. O’Neal. ``The fire blew up as firefighters were trying to evacuate ... all of them were in serious threat of losing their lives.″

As the flames roared toward them from a steep, rocky draw, the firefighters scrambled for the trucks. Those who couldn’t make it, grabbed their emergency shelters, aluminum-and-fiberglass tents designed to shield them from the heat and flames. One firefighter pulled two civilians into her one-person shelter, saving their lives.

Jason Emhoff’s four crewmates were partway down a wooded ravine when the flames roared up. They made a dash for the Chewuch River, at the bottom of the ravine, but the fire was moving too fast. They had just shaken out their shelters and were crawling inside when the fire overtook them.

The deaths of the four Tuesday was the worst loss of life in a wildfire since 14 firefighters were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994.

The Forest Service on Wednesday pulled the remaining crews back from the fire, which grew to 8,200 acres. Fresh crew were expected to be sent in Thursday.

``I would think they’ll be extra cautious in putting anybody out on this fire,″ Forest Service spokesman Jim Archambeault said.

The woods in north-central Washington have been parched by the area’s worst drought since 1977.

``Everybody knew this was going to be a bad fire year, with the lack of moisture this winter and several dry summers,″ Archambeault said.

On Tuesday, the ground was dry but the weather was calm when the 21 firefighters were sent in to snuff out hot spots from the small blaze, believed to have been sparked by an unattended campfire. When the wind came up, the fire blew to 2,500 acres in just over two hours.

``What we had was a very calm situation that suddenly became very volatile,″ Forest Service spokesman Rick Acosta said. ``There were high winds, very high temperatures of 100 degrees and low humidity. That makes for very tough fire behavior, and that’s what we got.″

Emhoff was the only survivor of his five-person crew. His father, Steve Emhoff, believes his son’s missing gloves may have saved him.

The 21-year-old had removed his work gloves earlier in the day. When the flames rushed in, the fire’s heat was too intense for him to hold the emergency shelter. With the heat searing his hands, Emhoff ditched the tent and ran for the nearest truck.

``He knew what he was up against,″ his father said.

On Wednesday, Emhoff was in serious but stable condition in a Seattle hospital with burns over 25 percent of his body, including his face and torso. His hands had ``full-thickness burns″ which will require skin grafts if doctors can save them, said Harborview Burn Center director David Heimbach.

The firefighters’ emergency fire shelters, which take about 45 seconds to deploy, have been standard issue for the Forest Service since 1970 and are credited with saving at least 250 lives. A redesign is under way based on tests showing that direct flames can break down the materials.

One of the shelters Tuesday saved three people. Firefighter Rebecca Welch was credited with saving the lives of two hikers by cramming them into her one-person shelter. Welch, 22, suffered second-degree burns because she could not fit completely inside the crowded tent.

Bruce Hagemeyer, 53, and his wife, Paula, 50, were treated for smoke inhalation and burns. ``There’s no question that she saved us,″ Bruce Hagemeyer said. ``No doubt about it at all. We would have died.″

The bodies of the four firefighters were left near the river until national investigators, who arrived late Wednesday, could examine the scene. They were identified as Tom L. Craven, 30, of Ellensburg; Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, of Yakima; Devin A. Weaver, 21, of Yakima; and Jessica L. Johnson, 19, of Yakima.

Fitzpatrick’s father, John, said his daughter had already participated in fighting three or four wildfires.

``We spent three hours together with our pastor Sunday. Then she went off to the fire,″ he said. ``That’s the last time I saw her.″

Weaver was fighting his first fire alongside Emhoff, a childhood friend from Yakima.

``He loved what he was doing, absolutely loved it when they called him up at midnight,″ said Weaver’s father, Ken. ``He couldn’t wait.″


On the Net:

Forests: http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee and http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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