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Already waging a furious battle against the Western wildfires, heavy-hearted investigators on Thursday tried to figure out what went wrong when three firefighters were killed in Washington state.
The firefighters, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, were killed after their vehicle crashed and apparently was overtaken by flames. They were trying to control a blaze that broke out Wednesday afternoon and spread quickly and erratically, driven by wind and feeding on drought-parched land.
“We know that these fires have burned a big hole in our state’s heart,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. "These are three big heroes protecting small towns.”
He suggested residents "thank a firefighter."
The three killed were not immediately identified, and there was no immediate word on what caused the crash or what equipment the firefighters had to protect themselves from the fast-moving blaze. Tom Tidwell, the chief of the forest service, asked for patience and said the investigation would take time.
Four other firefighters were injured, including one who was fighting for his life on Thursday. It was not clear whether those four were linked to the three dead. The critically injured firefighter is 25 years old, from Puyallup, Washington, and has burns on 60 percent of his body, a hospital said.
The firefighters were killed near the tiny town of Twisp, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, which was quickly evacuated.
Sheriff Frank Rogers of Okanogan County told KXLY-TV: “It was a hellstorm up there. The fire was racing, and the winds were blowing in every direction.”
President Barack Obama offered thoughts and prayers “on behalf of a grateful nation.” Inslee and Washington's two U.S. senators said they planned to ask for a disaster declaration to speed federal money and manpower to the area.
Photo Gallery: Deadly Wildfire Rages in Washington
Almost 30,000 firefighters from all over the country are battling about 100 wildfires that have broken out across the West. The flames have torched more than 1 million acres of land.
For Washington, “This is an unprecedented cataclysm in our state," Inslee told reporters.
The fire that killed the three firefighters began on about 50 acres, eight miles outside Twisp, a town of 900 people. It quickly grew to 1,500 acres, the state Department of Natural Resources said.
It was separate from a nearby fire known as the Okanogan Complex, which grew to almost 31,000 acres with only 20 percent containment. Winds were expected to grow on Thursday and Friday, increasing the danger.
And five other blazes, collectively known as the Chelan Complex, had reached almost 70,000 acres on the eastern edge of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, only about 50 percent contained.
"It hit us all at once," Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall said at a Thursday afternoon briefing. "Things just started flying, falling apart."
He added, "This fire situation is not done with. It's growing."
About 5,400 homes and buildings in the area have been evacuated, officials said. But they couldn't say how many people that affected.
Officials described a devastating mix of dry air and high winds that fed flames, shooting them through valleys and across flatlands with astonishing speed.
"These are fires and fire growth that I haven’t seen in about 33 years of doing this," said Nathan Rabe, commander of the Washington Interagency Incident Management Team 2.
Other than the dead and injured firefighters, officials also reported one injury to a civilian who suffered burns.