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Preliminary Report On Deadly August Wildfire Raises More Questions Than Answers

U.S. Forest Service and Washington DNR
A depiction of how two firefighters and a dozer operator survived the wildfire with just two foil fire shelters between them. The remnants of a house they were trying to protect is in the background.

The preliminary investigation of a deadly wildfire in August gives a detailed account of how three Forest Service firefighters met their deaths near Twisp, Washington.

The report does not reveal whether the deaths could have been avoided. But the dramatic narrative released Friday does describe how a sudden wind shift on a hot afternoon whipped a manageable fire edge into an inferno.

The ill-fated engine crew got orders to pull out and descend a winding, one-lane road toward a pre-identified safety zone. However, their engine drove off the road in zero visibility and was engulfed in flames.

The initial report avoids pinning blame for the deaths. Instead, the investigating agencies say they want to focus on extracting lessons to prevent future fatalities. Lessons learned are to be included in the final accident report.

The fire investigation report comes out a day after the lone survivor from the crew trapped by the Twisp River fire was released from a Seattle hospital. Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Lyon spent three months being treated for burns over more than 60 percent of his body.

His crewmates Rick Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski were found dead in the cab of their wildland fire engine on August 19.

The accident narrative recounted that when the engine ran off the road and came to a stop, Lyon "got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road." Lyon was met by another unnamed firefighter who was himself evacuating. This firefighter recalled Lyon's exact words: “We need help up there! Please, we need help!”

As the rescuer got closer, he recognized that Lyon "was severely burned, had taken off his yellow shirt, and was no longer wearing a hardhat."

Two Washington Department of Natural Resources firefighters and a contract dozer operator were also briefly trapped on the same side of the fire, but escaped with minor injuries. Those three men survived by deploying foil emergency fire shelters at a "Y" in the road.

"Like us, you certainly have unanswered questions about this incident. We do not know all the answers to the questions we are facing, and some questions may never be answered," reads the interagency report by the U.S. Forest Service and Washington DNR.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.