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WA Fire Fighters Death Update

Sun Aug 05, 2001 3:45 am

For those of you who are interested in the story but not in the flame war.......

Linda Ashton - Associated Press

LEAVENWORTH, Wash. _ When Nick Dreis went down, the force of 100-foot-tall flames from the Thirty Mile fire was coming right at his emergency shelter.

The smoke burned his eyes, so he kept them shut. He thought about how to conserve oxygen and wondered if the glue seams of his shelter would hold up in the heat.

Armando Avila prayed for the squad boss he last saw high up on a rocky hillside and the two campers trapped with the 14 firefighters on a dead-end road in the Chewuch River canyon in the northern Cascades.

Elaine Hurd just figured she was a goner.

But they all survived the blast-furnace-like fire that killed four of their firefighting crew on July 10, a blaze started by an abandoned campfire in the pine-and-spruce country of the Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests.

Nealy a month later, some members of the fire crew spoke Friday about their recollections of the 9,300-acre fire.

Avila, 22, a squad boss trainee with four years of firefighting experience, said he was one of the first to deploy his aluminum-and-fiberglass shelter on the Chewuch River Road. "Once I was in the shelter, I thought if I'm going to make it, this is my best chance," he said.

On his radio, he could hear the reassuring chatter of his crew boss, Ellreese Daniels, relaying information to a spotter plane.

"I was hoping all of us would make it. I was worried about the Hagermeyers. I was terrified for them," Avila said.

Bruce and Paula Hagermeyer, the two campers, were curled up in a one-person shelter with firefighter Rebecca Welch. All three survived.

Hurd, 18, Dreis, 22, both rookie firefighters, initially planned to use their shelters simply to keep the downpour of burning embers off their heads and their clothes.

But when the fire was right on top of them, each crawled inside the protective blanket.

"I thought I was done," Hurd said. "Buh-bye. I'm done now. I laid there and tried not to breathe too hard."

Dreis could feel another firefighter with his foot. He gave him a little kick and heard him say, "I feel like a baked potato."

None of the three can say how long they were in the shelters. Hurd guesses 5 minutes, Dreis 20 minutes. Avila lost all track of time.

Nor did they realize in the chaos of survival tactics how close they had come to dying. Eventually someone, no one is sure who, gave an order to leave their shelters and go to the river. With some of them standing in the cold, chest-deep water, they did a head count.

"None of us had any idea how serious it was until we did the count and realized people were missing," Dreis said.

Squad boss Thom Taylor told the group: "Here's the reality of it. There's four of us missing, and they're right up there on the hill," Avila said.

Dead were Tom L. Craven, 30, an experienced fire crew boss, and three fledgling firefighters: Karen FitzPatrick, 18, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Devin Weaver, 21.

Many of the survivors' recollections are like snapshots, odd moments of normalcy and tiny details. They deployed their fire shelters on the sides of the road, rather than the middle, so they wouldn't get run over by any emergency vehicles -- but none was coming up or down that dead-end road.

As the fire barreled down upon them, Pete Kampen, 30, a seven-year firefighter and the fire's crew-boss trainee, got seven firefighters into a van and down the road before it was too late.

"We just flat gunned it. It's the first time I've been really scared," he said. "I also knew there wasn't anybody going to come out behind us."

The remaining 14 piled into another van and tried to flee, but were driven back by the fire pushing up the road.

"We did a 50-point turn. It took forever," Avila said. "I wanted to get out. Somebody said we were going to die."

Dreis and Avila remember a sense of relief once Daniels got the van turned around, and they drove away from the impenetrable wall of fire on the road.

They looked for a safety zone in which to deploy their fire shelters, and found one with the help of an air spotter overhead. They had 20 or 30 minutes to look around. They discussed the best places to deploy their shelters.

"I remember hearing the sandbar (in the river) or the road. I don't remember anyone saying the rocks," Avila said.

Avila and Taylor looked around in the rocks. Avila noticed a lot of loose fuel. "I didn't like it up there," he said. "I went back down to the road."

Eventually, Kampen and four members of a hot shot crew would make their way back up the road to rescue the survivors.

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