By JESSE A. HAMILTON YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC
In the worst possible conditions, in a forest fire hours away from here, in a sudden explosion of flame, five local men and women were enclosed in a wall of fire Tuesday.
Four young people from Central Washington -- three from the Yakima Valley and one from Ellensburg -- died inside their individual fire shelters. A fifth made it out alive, though his body was nearly wrecked by burns.
What already promised to be a nightmare summer for Washington's wild-land fire crews became worse than they could have imagined. A fire that many thought was nearly beaten churned into a holocaust of sparks and heat and flame.
Up there in the narrow Chewuch River canyon near the Canadian border, about 30 miles north of the small town of Winthrop, 21 U.S. Forest Service firefighters had gone to do their jobs in the first hours of Tuesday. It was a small fire then -- maybe several dozen acres.
Tuesday afternoon, in not much more than two hours, that routine blaze turned monstrous. The "initial attack crews" were ordered to pull out when the fire was racing to cover an estimated 2,500 acres.
The fire caught up with the crews. It sped along the valley, cutting off escape routes, leaping across treetops.
The 21 seasonal firefighters and two campers were caught in the maelstrom. Five of the firefighters from the Naches Ranger District were Tom L. Craven, 30, of Ellensburg; Jason Emhoff, 21, of Yakima; Karen FitzPatrick, 18, of West Valley; Devin A. Weaver, 21, of Yakima; and Jessica L. Johnson, 19, of West Valley. There were another five from the Naches district who barely escaped serious injury.
Emhoff has spoken briefly about what happened from his bed at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. This is how he described it, said his father, Steve Emhoff: The humidity dropped in the valley. The temperature climbed. The weather forced the fire higher into the trees, building a massive swirl of sparks.
Craven was assistant foreman for the Naches crew. Emhoff was a squad boss. They and others from Naches took to the narrow road along the canyon bottom. But sparks from the steep, southern slope were leaping onto the northern. On the road, Steve Emhoff said, "They came up against a wall of flames. They turned back around. They came up against another wall of flames." They had no way out.
They couldn't make it down to the river. Instead, they looked for a safe zone, a clearing with few trees.
All five deployed their personal fire shelters, which are small, aluminum-covered tents designed to protect firefighters who can't escape the flames. They covered themselves. They waited for the flames. But Jason Emhoff had a problem. He'd lost his fire-resistant gloves earlier. His hands were burning, and that misfortune probably saved his life.
He ran to a nearby rock to take shelter behind it, but he couldn't breathe inside the fog of smoke. So he made for the crew's firetruck.
"That's part of their training," his father said. "That's the last-ditch effort."
Jason Emhoff survived inside the cab of that truck. The other four members of his crew died.
Hours later, he was rescued by an Entiat, Wash., group of Hotshots, a highly trained crew of wilderness firefighters.
"When things cooled down, they went back to help," said Sonny O'Neal, the forest supervisor for the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests.
They found Emhoff, Weaver, Johnson, FitzPatrick and Craven in a clearing adjacent to the road.
"The fire had burned all around them," O'Neal said.
Those in charge of the firefighting pulled all personnel off the fire. They spent most of Wednesday watching the fire grow, waiting for the Forest Service's elite to take over in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, regional fire officials went to front doors. They woke family members of the victims. They told them what happened.
FitzPatrick's mother, Kathie, went to the door at 4 a.m. to find two men standing there with flashlights. She knew they had bad news. "There's nothing like losing a child," she said hours later.
Counselors were assigned to victims' families, and Gov. Gary Locke called them.
"I hope that Washingtonians will rally around the victims' families and support them in every way possible," the governor said in a statement.
Also Wednesday, a team of investigators began interviewing survivors to determine everything that happened from the start of the fire -- believed to have been caused by an unattended campfire -- to the time injured firefighters were hauled out.
Emhoff and his four crewmates weren't the only firefighters to use their shelters. Of the 21 Forest Service firefighters in the canyon, 13 resorted to that extreme measure, used only when there's no other option.
At least two were injured, including Scott Sherzinger, a 24-year-old Selah man, and Rebecca Welch, a 22-year-old from Naches.
Welch wasn't the only one in her own survival shelter. A couple who had been camping were there, too. Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer of Ellensburg crawled in with her.
"The fire was literally coming into the tent," said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the Forest Service. All three were burned, but their injuries weren't serious enough for a hospital stay.
Sherzinger's family confirmed that he was faring well after being treated at an Okanogan County hospital. Injured firefighters still in the base camp chose not to talk with reporters late Wednesday.
Emhoff was the only one who required hospital time. And he'll need about two months of it, his father said.
His hands were deeply burned. They'll need skin grafts, surgery and physical therapy, though doctors say there's some possibility of amputation. He suffered burns to his face and ears. His chest, thighs, knees -- not much of him escaped unharmed.
His crewmates' bodies were expected to be recovered by this morning.
Some parents are outraged at the Forest Service for sending their teen-age children into such danger.
"Those rookies had no business being there," said Barbara Weaver, mother of Devin Weaver, who had only a few weeks of experience.
But this fire was small when they were sent. Forest Service officials called it a "mop up." Then dry conditions and unusually hot weather made the dozens of acres in the Okanogan National Forest erupt into a mammoth fire that burned an estimated 8,200 acres by Wednesday evening.
And firefighting professionals say its common to send the less-experienced people out with those who have a few more fires under their belts.
Karen FitzPatrick, like Devin Weaver, had only three weeks of experience after a week of training.
"That doesn't seem like very much," Kathie FitzPatrick said. But she also understood fires can be unpredictable, and fighting them is dangerous. "There are certain things you can't know about or be prepared for."
Steve Emhoff wants people to realize just how qualified his son and the other firefighters were to be there.
"They may have been young, but they were very well trained," he said. "Those four that perished were doing exactly what they were trained to do."
"They all had some experience on the ground," said Marge Hutchinson, who works at the Naches district. Craven worked with Naches since 1993. Emhoff was in his second season.
It's a job that attracts youth.
"There's just a romance that's associated with fighting wild-land fire," Ferris said. "Adventure, action, adrenaline."
But, he said safety is the primary goal.
"There's nothing more valuable out there than human life."
This is the biggest wildfire tragedy since 1994's deaths of 14 young firefighters in Colorado, said O'Neal.
After what happened Tuesday on the Chewuch River, the survivors won't be put back on duty there today.
In the aftermath of the four deaths, Naches District Ranger Randy Shepard said of the survivors, "They're taking it pretty hard."
Today, 600 firefighters from around the country are expected to replace that devastated crew. They'll face continuing heat in the Okanogan high country, with highs hitting 95 today, according to the National Weather Service office in Spokane. Thunderstorms could also hit, bringing fire-squelching rain, but also the possibility of fire-starting lightning.
Showers and thunderstorms are expected in the area through Tuesday with temperatures dropping into the 70s, the weather service said.
Even after the fire is out, this event will live on. Something like this affects more than just the victims and their families. These deaths echo everywhere.
"It's a reminder that this job, no matter how we train and drill, no matter how mentally prepared we are, bad things can happen," said Tom Schneider, a veteran in the Yakima Fire Department.
"It's like losing one of your own family."
For Emhoff, it was like losing four, his father suggested, including one of his best friends, Weaver.
Emhoff's family hasn't talked with him yet about what happened to his crew. He's still medicated and often delirious. Steve Emhoff said he will choose the right time to tell his son of the tragedy.
Not that he won't be running it through his mind for a long time. That fire is the last thing he'll see for a while. The burns have swollen his eyes shut.
n Reporters Tom Roeder and Liz Dailey contributed to this story.
I want to weep each time I see them, from both sadness and anger.