Vilsack mourns firefighter deaths, pledges resources to suppress wildfire threat

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2015 -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the government will use “every available resource” to combat the outbreak of wildfires plaguing the American West. And he said USDA and the U.S. Forest Service are in mourning for three Forest Service firefighters killed Wednesday while battling a wildfire near the town of Twisp, Washington.

“We mourn the loss of the brave firefighters whose commitment to duty was so deep that they gave their own lives to protect others,” Vilsack said in a statement. “We also extend our profound sympathies to the families and loved ones of the fallen, whose sacrifices are equally worthy of honor, and our thoughts and prayers are with those who are recovering from injuries sustained in the line of duty. As we press on through an extraordinarily challenging wildfire season, we are reminded yet again of the perils our firefighters face as they protect communities from wildfire.”

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Authorities said the fallen firefighters were from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. They were identified as Tom Zbyszewski, age 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31. A fourth USFS firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, was in critical condition at Harborview Hospital in Seattle with burns to approximately 60 percent of his body.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said the firefighters were killed when their vehicle was involved in a crash and that the fire apparently overtook the vehicle. Two Washington State Department of Natural Resources firefighters were also said to be injured but it wasn't clear if their injuries were related to the crashed vehicle.

"It was a hellstorm up here," Rogers told KXLY-TV of Spokane. "The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction and then it would shift. ... It was tough on 'em up here."

The White House said President Barack Obama had been apprised of the deaths. He directed the administration to stay in touch with state and local officials and to provide federal assistance as necessary. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee requested a federal emergency declaration.

The Associated Press said the deaths came after officials urged people in the popular outdoor-recreation centers northeast of Seattle to evacuate as a fire near Twisp grew to about 2 square miles. A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 50 square miles and prompted the evacuation of Conconully, home to about 200 people. To the south, the AP said more than 1,100 firefighters were battling a fire that topped 108 square miles and was still threatening the resort town of Chelan.

The National Interagency Fire Center said at least 16 large fires were burning in Washington state alone. Drought and heat have combined to make this fire season one of the most active in the United States in recent years. Nearly 29,000 firefighters are battling some 100 large blazes across the West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California. So far this year, fires have charred more than 7.2 million acres, up from 2.6 million acres at the same time in 2014.

In a separate statement, Vilsack noted that the government is currently spending over $150 million per week on fire suppression activities and said the figure is likely to grow in the coming weeks, with expectations that the fire season will continue to intensify. Wednesday's fatalities brought the number of firefighters killed this season to seven, he said.

The government has deployed 28 next-generation and legacy air tankers, and additional aviation assets and that officials are working with the U.S. Military and foreign partners, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to bring in additional resources.

Vilsack said climate change, drought, fuel buildup, insects and disease are increasing the severity of unprecedented wildfires in America's forests and rangelands, affecting the safety of people, homes and communities. Development close to forests has also increased the threat to property, with more than 46 million homes in the U.S., or about 40 percent of the nation's housing, potentially at risk from wildfire, he said.

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