In less than two hours, lives changed forever and some lives were lost
By JESSE HAMILTON and STEPHANIE EARLS
Fires have different personalities, same as people. Some are slow, creeping low and silent like prowlers.
Others hide and smolder, waiting for a chance to flare just when you think they're done. Still others are
frenzied and random, lunging and spitting and devouring everything they can, as fast as they can.
The veterans teach you about all of these, and what you have to do to beat them. It's standard-issue
knowledge for U.S. Forest Service firefighters like Pete Kampen and the men and women on his crew -- a
third of whom were rookies, some just a few weeks this side of high school.
But the wildfire that was resurrecting itself in the woods around 29-year-old Kampen, in this narrow
canyon of the Chewuch River, this fire that had started out so tiny and pathetic a few of his charges had
grumbled about getting the assignment -- this fire was different.
This fire had tricked them.
Beyond the stand of spruce trees, Kampen could see its bright, steady flames -- they were going fast,
roaring like a jet engine. For much of the day, the firefighters had watched it move like this, glowing just
beyond the trees like an animal in a cage, and they'd figured they were safe. But they'd been wrong.
As Kampen stood there, the smoke shifted dramatically, billowing into the sunlight and throwing the
landscape into deep red. Pushed by weather, the fire turned toward the road. The sound was deafening as it
swept through the chalk-dry forest, heading straight for them.
"Everybody back in," Kampen yelled to the firefighters unloading from the van behind him.
Kampen slid behind the wheel, turned the van around and hit the gas. He radioed his crew boss, Ellreese
Daniels, stationed up the canyon with 13 firefighters. "Ellreese, we're pulling out."
Then Kampen floored it, skimming along a row of burning trees that grabbed at them with orange arms. As
the van sped by, superheated gasses in the air exploded into flame. A voice scratched in on the radio,
Daniels snapping orders to the others: "Everybody out. Everybody out now!"
The firestorm battered against Kampen's van, thundering, heating the air inside until it rippled. Up ahead,
the east side of the road was ablaze, with flames whipping out like curtains in a windstorm.
The squad's safe zone was on the other side of that.
There was no time to debate options, though. Kampen stomped on the accelerator and the van sliced
through. Fire and ruined trees folded over the road in its wake, a wall of red and orange and impossible heat.
No one else is getting out that way, Kampen thought.
Daniels and the 13 firefighters with him were trapped, and they didn't even know it.
He had just dozed off when the phone rang at his Leavenworth home. Armando Avila's clock had clicked
past 1 a.m., but that was OK, because he knew what this call meant.
A fire. He was going to his first big fire of the season. And this time -- in his fourth year with the U.S.
Forest Service -- he'd be a "squad boss trainee." He'd be learning how to run a group of five or six
This call was to meet at the Leavenworth station. Be there at 3 a.m., in the starlit beginning of July 10.
He was tense. The Libby South Fire was a big one, and it was running wild. The columns of smoke had
been seen from a hundred miles away.
Firefighters would be meeting up from three ranger districts: Naches, Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee.
Avila, 22, worked for Leavenworth on a Type 2 "initial attack crew," a designation given to the groups that
form the backbone of forest firefighting. They don't get as much attention as the Type 1 teams, the
Hotshots and Smokejumpers who are usually associated with the most danger, but their jobs can be just as
The three fire groups converged at Leavenworth. In the predawn dark, the leaders made assignments. Pete
Kampen would be in charge, training as a "crew boss" under 24-year veteran Ellreese Daniels.
They divided this 21-firefighter crew into three squads, breaking up the duties as evenly as possible while
trying to keep people with others from their own districts. They wanted everybody to know the people
next to them when the going got rough. A third of them had never worked a fire season before.
Tom Craven ran the Naches squad, made up of squad-boss trainee Jason Emhoff and Beau Clark, Karen
FitzPatrick, Scott Scherzinger and Rebecca Welch. Thom Taylor, out of Leavenworth, headed a squad with
trainee Avila and Nick Dreis, Elaine Hurd, Jessica Johnson, Matthew Rutman and Devin Weaver. Brian
Schexnayder, from Lake Wenatchee, supervised a squad made up of Dwane Anderson, Emily Hinson,
Jodie Tate, Marshall Wallace and Donica Watson.
They all hopped into a convoy of vans and trucks and headed toward a little town called Twisp, just north
of where Libby South burned.
Kampen and his crew pulled into the ranger station in Twisp, and his passengers filed out to hit the
Inside the station, he met up with the day's boss, Pete Soderquist, to get his crew's marching orders for the
1,200-acre Libby South. Plans, however, had changed, Soderquist told Kampen.
They had a new fire, a 25-acre mess, up by the Chewuch River near Thirtymile Campground. They needed
a crew to contain a blaze that had been quieted the night before by the Entiat Hotshots. Kampen dragged
the new orders back to his crew, knowing they'd be disappointed.
"I have good news and I have bad news," he told them. "We're not going to Libby South, but we are going
to a fire."
The announcement was met with a few grumbles, a few sighs. The crew had been looking forward to
Libby, having watched its smoke since sunrise. They'd also been looking forward to the big paychecks that
would come with the work -- up to $3,000 for two weeks, with the overtime and hazard pay that comes
with fighting an active fire. Kampen knew that, so he offered a deal: Finish the little fire in a few days and
maybe then you can move over to wrap up at Libby South.
About 8 a.m., Kampen and his crew packed into their vehicles and headed for the little fire that had earned
a name hours earlier: Thirtymile.
Into the Canyon
"I didn't have any idea where we were going," Rebecca Welch remembers. All the 22-year-old knew was
that it was a 25-acre fire -- her second one with the Forest Service.
A 30-year-old named Tom Craven was her squad boss. He was a nice guy, fun to be around. She trusted
him and his experience.
He told his squad that they'd be hitting this thing as aggressively as possible. They'd dig their fire lines
right up against the dense brush and trees that had smoldered through the night.
The sleepy crew drove up Forest Service Road 5160. The dirt track wound past North Twentymile Peak
on the right, Kay Peak on the left. Opening up before them was the kind of scenic backcountry canyon
that hikers dream about. Ridges rocketed up to impossible heights, choked with old forests, cut down the
middle by a pristine little river.
Steep slopes. Dense forests. Those also happen to be ingredients that make wildland firefighters dread
places like this.
But Welch didn't have much to compare it to. As far as she was concerned, she would do whatever the
people in charge told her to.
First, there was some waiting as Kampen and others went in to figure out how the fire was behaving over
there, across the little river. Then the crew walked in. They carried their heavy packs, their tools. They
wore fire clothing-- gloves, shirts and pants made from Nomex, a fabric designed to repel intense heat. Safer
though it was, all this stuff was pretty hot to wear on a day like this.
They walked east across a big log that had fallen over the river. Above, there was an eye-pounding blue
sky. It promised heat, temperatures into the 90s, even without the nearness of fire. The brush crackled
Even so, the fire -- which turned out to be only 6 acres -- looked tame. Flames were few, and they didn't
move much as Welch and her crewmates started clearing grass, trees and brush from around the several
little fires. They made what are called "hand lines," clearing anything flammable from a border around the
flames. The idea is to keep the fires where they are, not letting them find more fuel to eat.
It's hard. It must be done with hand tools. The hiss of the morning blazes competed with the gut-rattling
whine of chain saws and the pounding from firefighter pulaskis, a cross between pickax and hoe. The work
was slow. The heat began to get to Welch and others. She and her squad couldn't seem to drink enough
water to quench their thirst.
She kept digging. Others dragged hoses from pumps in the river. They sprayed down some of the
The fire got worse. Flames shot higher. Like others, Welch began to wonder if it was safe being there.
The Campers go by
After two days camping in the Okanogan National Forest, Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer navigated their
1987 Dodge Ram camper along the 30 or so switchback miles into Winthrop for fresh supplies and a
Sometime after noon on Tuesday, the Thorp couple headed back into the woods to spend the final night of
their trip, to find a good, quiet spot. They chose the narrow road that laced alongside the Chewuch River
and dead-ended at a site called Thirtymile Campground.
On their way up, they passed the remains of a campfire and a patch of charred and smoking ground near
the road. Forest Service vehicles were parked nearby, but the Hagemeyers saw nobody, saw no fire.
Bruce, 53, and Paula, 50, were avid campers, but they'd never encountered a forest fire before.
The road wasn't blocked.
So they kept driving.
Three cars were parked at Thirtymile Campground when the Hagemeyers pulled in to the primitive site
that also marked the trailhead of paths over the northern ridge and into the Pasayten Wilderness Area,
which stretches to Canada. The couple figured the cars belonged to backpackers long gone, which meant
they were alone.
After two days of vacation, Paula finally began to relax.
The day was perfect. Hot and dry, yes -- it was a drought year, after all -- but up here it was mild. The
flies, however, were bad. Weirdly bad, in fact. They were swarming ahead of the coming fire, but the
Hagemeyers didn't know that then.
Tired of waving away the bugs, Paula stretched out in the back of the camper and read a book while Bruce
pitched the tent.
About 4:30 p.m. Bruce checked his watch and called to his wife to see if she'd eaten lunch yet. Paula, a
petite and athletic woman, had a tendency to forget meals if she wasn't reminded.
Paula looked up from her book, out the back of the camper. The sky was beautiful, with a muted orange
glow hovering over the ridge.
It looked, she thought, almost like a sunset.
It was Matthew Rutman's first fire, and he was watching it grow steadily stronger. The "swamper,"
assigned to clear away brush cut by a sawyer, didn't worry much about the change. He just kept working.
It was more than an hour past the usual 1 p.m. lunch break. Progress against this fire was by the inch.
Drinking water ran low. People were hungry.
Rutman, 26, kept at it, anyway, waiting for different orders. That, he knew, is how the Forest Service
"You never really know anything until the last minute. You just jump when they tell you to jump."
His orders would come soon. The fire had become fierce, pushing at their lines, eating through. For a brief
time, tactics changed. The supervisors wanted a sturdier line, stretching all across the east side of the
canyon, from river to ridge.
Whole trees began exploding in flame. It was no longer a fire that one crew could handle. It was jumping the
fire lines they'd spent hours digging. It was running up the steep slope. It shot embers over their heads,
touching off little fires behind them.
The order came to get out.
The firefighters gathered up their gear. Somebody kept a hose spraying on their escape route, keeping it
clear. Then all retreated, leaving their work behind -- useless.
They headed to the river through heavy stands of spruce trees. Back over the makeshift log bridge. To the
safe zone, a sparse patch of ground where they could rest and eat lunch.
Rebecca Welch was relieved to be there. Without sleep for about 30 hours -- the last few of them having
been filled with adrenaline-driven work -- it was all she could do to eat the sandwiches that they picked up
at the Leavenworth Safeway that morning. Then she stretched out and napped. Others sharpened tools,
watching flames climb the trees just across the river.
A 21-year-old crewmate named Jason Emhoff kicked her awake, joking that she was lazy. When she woke,
she could see the fire running across the treetops. Even so, she didn't worry.
At that point, Ellreese Daniels took over command from Pete Kampen, the trainee who had been in charge
all day. It was getting serious, and Daniels had fought fires longer than most of the crew had been alive.
The fire had become savage, blossoming to maybe 500 acres, too big for a direct attack. The new
assignment was to keep it on the east side of the canyon, where it was exploding through the parched
The Entiat Hotshots had already been called from their camp about two miles down the road, toward the
canyon mouth, having bedded down less than two hours earlier. The experienced Type 1 crew from Entiat,
Wash., was at the lunch spot, waiting, when the exhausted replacements pulled back.
The Hotshots stayed, awaiting orders to return to a fire they thought they'd all but beaten the night before.
A couple of Forest Service fire-engine crews drove in during the break, too, and headed up the road to see
whether the nearby river was holding the fire on its east side. It wasn't.
After 4 p.m., the engine crews called for hand crews to help them on some spot fires up the road. They
were spraying water, but to kill these things, fire lines would be needed -- saws and pulaskis would be
required to work there, north of the northward-moving main fire.
The fire seemed to be pushing at the dirt and gravel road. Welch remembers her squad boss, Craven,
volunteering his people for the job.
But all three squads in Daniels' crew -- and the Hotshots -- would end up going. Soon, a string of vehicles
was parked a short distance up the canyon.
Brian Schexnayder's squad was the last to leave the lunch spot, with Kampen at the van's wheel. It didn't
go as far as the others. Even in that short distance, the squad passed other new spot fires near the road --
their only escape route.
The other two squads, the ones who had gone up first, got to work on a tiny fire probably not more than a
few hundred feet up the canyon from where Kampen parked his van.
So, Welch found herself digging line again. It looked as if it would be an easy job. Two squads. Little spot
fire. No problem.
The Sky Goes Dark
The fire was laying waste to the east side of the canyon. The column of smoke formed its own brooding
Just after the two squads joined to dig lines on this new spot fire, on the west side of the river, the engine
crew that had called for them ran low on water and left.
The two squads were alone: Craven's group of Naches people and Thom Taylor's people. Ellreese Daniels
was there, too.
They were on the little spot fire for only a few minutes when they could hear the main fire sucking in air,
taking a big breath.
Next came a moment of confusion. The deep stack of black clouds shifted. The smoke column moved
across the sun, casting a red tint across the forest. Burning pine needles cascaded.
In the view down the canyon, toward escape, toward survival, the crew could see the fire coming. It
punched to the road, between them and safety.
Daniels ordered everybody out. Now.
The 14 firefighters rushed for the nearby road, where the rental van sat. The white vehicle was being pelted
Ten people piled into the van, with Daniels at the wheel. Four others -- Craven, Emhoff, Beau Clark and
Welch -- began heading down the road on foot.
The van drove past Craven's people. Daniels told them to double-time it. Then he drove on, down the
darkened road, meaning to drive to the mouth of the canyon, below the fire.
Two or three minutes later, the van stopped. Before it, a tall field of flame marched up the road. It came for
them, quickly. Trees detonated on either side of their choked-off escape
route, where Pete Kampen's van had barely made it through minutes before. They were trapped.
Daniels began to turn around. An agonizing process on this narrow road. A little forward, crank the wheel,
a little back, crank the wheel again. So slow. The fire kept marching toward them.
Somebody said, "We're gonna die."
Armando Avila remembers wanting more than anything to get out of the van, to run back up the road on
his own feet, to trust
his legs to save him. It was a helpless feeling, sitting there, waiting to see if the fire would catch them
hulking van could get turned around.
The windows filled with a neon orange glow. Panic began to take them. But then the van was out, and
Daniels was speeding back up the road. He stopped when he got to Craven's bunch.
Fourteen people and all their gear stuffed into a van made for 10. Daniels drove fast up the narrow road.
Avila remembers Karen FitzPatrick saying, "This is the scariest thing I've been through in my life."
But he felt relief. They were on the road. They could outrun the fire, no problem.
He had images of following the road up over a pass, out of this canyon, somewhere safe. But really, he had
no idea where this road would lead.
The Entrapment (Part 1)
Sometime about 4:45 p.m., Daniels stopped the big white van after driving only a mile or so. Here was an
open spot in the canyon, where a rocky slope climbed the ridge on one side of the road, and a sandbar
widened the Chewuch on the other.
Everybody got out.
Most of them wondered why they had stopped. Somebody asked.
Daniels told them this road went no farther than the end of the canyon, where it stopped at the Thirtymile
trailhead. So we're stopping here, he said, in a safe place. This is where we'll wait things out.
A few had known they were on a dead-end road. Most didn't. Daniels told them to stay calm.
He also told them he didn't think they'd have to deploy their shelters, the little tents that are the last stand
for firefighters caught by flames. Overhead, a plane flew through the canyon. An experienced firefighter on
board, acting as a spotter, radioed down that they'd chosen the best place to be.
They couldn't even see the fire that they'd escaped.
There was a bend in the canyon between them and it. The only evidence that it still lived was its mammoth
column of smoke.
Though he wouldn't call himself a smoker, Matthew Rutman decided now was a good time for a cigarette.
He wandered over to join the group's three other smokers, to puff quietly and watch as the other
firefighters stood around in the clearing or sat on the rocks along the western slope.
Things seemed under control.
Welch was ready to do whatever anybody told her. Though the others seemed calm, this whole thing was
pushing her threshold of fear. So she sought out those she knew and those she thought could help her
Craven, her squad boss, and Emhoff, a boss trainee, sat on some boulders near the road. She stood beside
those big rocks, beside those solid people.
"What are you worrying about, Rebecca?" Craven asked
her. "When I start worrying, you should start worrying."
Emhoff told her everything would be OK. But Welch didn't feel safe there, away from the road, even
though it was only a dozen feet off. So she rejoined the others. She had no idea why her five crewmates
from the Naches Ranger District would soon go even farther up onto the rock slope.
FitzPatrick had borrowed Welch's camera. The 18-year-old was into photography, and she wanted to
capture the moment, get this monster on film.
That got easier as minutes went by. They heard it coming before they saw it. The sound of a freight train
turned into the sight of flames in the distance.
"This is amazing," she told Welch.
At one point, FitzPatrick stood in the road among her crewmates, held the camera up at arm's length and
took a picture of her own smiling face in front of the smoke column.
Then she would join Craven and Emhoff and the others up in the rocks.
The whole time, Avila believed he would have to deploy his fire shelter. Each of them carried the fiberglass
shelters, folded up into heavy little packages. The aluminum-coated tents were designed to keep heat as
high as 600 degrees from hurting the single firefighter inside.
The group talked about where they should deploy, if it came to that. Avila remembers the options included
the nearby sandbar and the road.
There was no consensus. Most just stayed on the road, stayed with the main group. Most didn't feel the
same as Avila that they'd have to pull their silver shelters from the plastic sheaths.
Though the others weren't talking much about it, Avila looked for a place to put his. In the first minutes
after arrival, his squad-boss trainer, Thom Taylor, had climbed the rock slope to get a look at things. Avila
went after him, hoping to get some advice.
The 22-year-old didn't feel right up there. Taylor was the only one there at the moment. Avila looked
closely at the rocks at his feet. Many were the size of watermelons. They wouldn't make a good surface to
seal the edges of his shelter, he thought.
Shelters need to be sealed, or they let smoke and heat inside. Plus, the rocks here had a lot of dry, dead
needles and brush between them. That would go up like wads of paper if the fire were to come.
He went back to the road.
The Entrapment (Part 2)
Bruce Hagemeyer had spotted the smoke and called nervously for Paula to take a look.
It's probably nothing, she told him, but Bruce hopped on his bike and pedaled down the road about 100
yards. He returned with bad news: big fire, lots of smoke, better pack up. Even though she'd always been
terrified of fire, Paula didn't like the decision -- if it was dangerous, the Forest Service wouldn't have let
them up here, she reasoned. But she didn't argue.
They hadn't gotten far before running up against a roadblock of sorts -- people in yellow shirts, green
pants and hardhats milling about a parked white van. In the near distance, a wide cloud of smoke chased
itself up the sky. A Forest Service firefighter, a man, approached the camper and Paula asked what was
"Cut off by fire."
"What do we do?"
"You can stay here or go back, if you think you can find a better place."
The Hagemeyers decided to stay.
Moments later, a young woman came over to the camper and introduced herself as a new firefighter and
recent high-school graduate. It was Karen FitzPatrick, and she was in awe.
"Just look at this, guys, because you'll never see anything else like this," she told the Hagemeyers. "If
you've got a camera, take pictures."
Then they saw FitzPatrick wander up into the rocks. Paula, however, was more worried than amazed at
the fire's display. She and Bruce got out of the truck, looking for someone who could tell them what to do.
They were directed to Ellreese Daniels.
Just don't panic, they were told.
Paula could hear the rumble of the fire, and the sound was growing, a continuous thundering, louder and
She turned to Bruce: "Honey, we're on our own here."
Cigarette done and hands now empty, Matthew Rutman began patting his pockets nervously as though
searching for his wallet or keys. He didn't know what he was looking for, just fidgety. What he found,
however, in a breast pocket, was his notebook. A scratch pad, really, for quick thoughts he was in danger
of forgetting. This pad was mostly blank.
Rutman sat down cross-legged in the road and started writing, in large, jagged script:
"Blackened pine and fir needles are falling on our heads ..."
He heard someone tell the campers that the fire was going to blow over.
Rebecca Welch remembered hearing about the possibility of thundershowers this evening. It was about
5:15 p.m. now, a long time before the sun would set.
As she hoped and prayed for that rain to come, her prayer seemed to be answered. Rain began to come
Then she realized it was a rain of charred needles.
Soon, they turned red.
The Hagemeyers rushed to the camper, tearing through their gear to find long-sleeve shirts and pants. They
tugged the clothes on and headed back toward the group. Impulsively, Paula grabbed a water jug and a
"Can I take this with us?" she asked Daniels.
Daniels told her not to get the towel wet and breathe through it. Steam your lungs. Kill you.
Smoke blew into the clearing, and Paula slipped something over her face -- an allergy mask she had with
her. Bruce pulled the collar of his jacket over his mouth to filter the dirty air.
Still, despite the smoke, everyone seemed to be waiting for something, watching.
Bruce and Paula turned toward the approaching storm.
The shower of embers, needles and twigs, grew.
Daniels called for everybody to stay at the road, though it's unclear how many heard him. Many of the
firefighters still believed, since Daniels hadn't told them to get ready to deploy their shelters, that the worst
part of the fire would pass on the other side of the river. They thought they'd be seeing quite a show as it
tore past them.
Then the raining material turned into a hail of fire bouncing off the firefighters' helmets. Flaming chunks the
size of tennis balls hurtled from the darkened sky.
The smoke blocked out the sun.
And the fire was there, across the river, moving impossibly fast. It swept through the forest like a
cataclysmic flood. The bigger it got, the more wind it created.
It charged north, howling at greater and greater speed up the other side of the canyon, sending a windstorm
About 5:20 p.m., in an unlucky twist of topography, their safe spot began to turn deadly. The fire reached
a place across the river where the canyon narrowed, funneled. A bend there whipped the fire's winds to the
left, over the Chewuch, toward the trapped crew.
"Get out your fire shelters and cover your friends," Matthew Rutman heard Daniels shout. It wasn't a
command to deploy the shelters, but to use them to ward off embers.
The 26-year-old closed his notebook and snapped a final photograph as his boss moved over to sit nearby.
Rutman pulled out his silver shelter and draped it around his own shoulders. He wrapped one end of the
material around Daniels the way you would a blanket around a shivering friend.
Glowing embers pounded on shoulders, hard hats, the ground. At the other edge of the river, flames surged
to the size of office buildings. The smoke was like fog.
Rutman rolled to the side, pulling the shelter over him. The air inside was thick and sharp, only worsening
when two backpacks next to him burst into flames. He pulled out the steel, multipurpose Leatherman tool
he kept strapped to his belt and began to dig in the earth near his mouth, keeping the shelter pinned down
with his elbows. The deeper the hole, the cleaner the air.
Outside, gale-force winds beat against his shelter, trying to rip it off him. Rutman yelled Avila's name, but
couldn't hear a reply over the howl of the storm.
He stopped yelling then, to save air. He had to make the bubble of smoky air last as long as he could.
Somewhere, people were screaming.
The Entrapment (Part 3)
Nick Dreis was young, athletic, quick. He always figured that if a fire came after him he'd be able to outrun
Turned out, he didn't even try.
He was, however, one of the last to use his shelter, only after watching a 100-foot coil of flame snap out to
torch brush near the van. He took that smoky air in with him when he deployed.
Dreis had scuba dived, though, and knew how to control his breathing, to keep calm when the oxygen was
in short supply. He turned his lips to the dirt to get the coolest air possible. Beyond the din of the fire, he
could hear voices. He tried to think about not thinking.
Something pressed against his foot and Dreis kicked out. It was Beau Clark, a Naches guy, deployed next
"I feel like a baked potato," Clark said, and the two laughed.
They had no ideahow bad it really was.
The flames rolled toward them in a giant red ball.
Paula thought: "This is it. You're going to be consumed by this." Then she and her husband were down,
diving forcover under the nearest fire shelter.A woman -- Rebecca Welch -- was inside. She let them come
in, curling into a ball at the upper end of the shelter to make room for them.
The shelters, however, are like little tents, only made for one person. Bruce and Paula hunched as best they
could, using elbows and knees and hands to hold down the shelter, smothering flames with their towel.
Still, flames curled under the edges as the three struggled. Smoke crept in.
"We're not going to die like this," Paula chanted to herself, a promise.
Bruce started coughing as dense smoke leaked into their bubble of air. "I'm on fire," he said, and Paula could
hear panic in his voice. He started to lift an edge of the shelter, leaning forward as though he planned to
"Don't do that," both Paula and Welch yelled. Bruce relented, curled back up. He said he couldn't breathe.
Despite Daniels' warning, Paula poured a little water onto the towel from the plastic jug she'd brought in.
She shoved an edge of the dampened towel in his face, and he began to breathe through it. Either way, her
husband was facing death. This way he had a chance.
She began to wonder what it feels like to lose consciousness. She hoped their deaths would come fast.
"Our Father, who art in heaven ..."
Thom Taylor was higher on the rock slope than any other when the air turned deadly. The squad boss
tried to deploy his shelter, just as the rest of those scattered down the slope and on the road had.
But furious winds tore at it and pulled it from him. It just wouldn't work, wouldn't stay down. He knew it
wouldn't save him. He realized this place on the rocks would mean death for whoever stayed, including the
five who had deployed below him.
So he decided to die on his feet.
Taylor pulled the heat-resistant covering around his neck and face and commenced to do the impossible.
He ran more than 40 yards down the hill. On dangerously uneven rocks, just begging to twist an ankle or
knee. Through superheated air and flame. While the forest around him exploded. He ran.
Then he dove straight into a narrow branch of the Chewuch, separated from the main flow by the sandbar.
There he stayed, submerged in the water. The firestorm went over. Only his nose stayed above water, just
enough to inhale air and stay alive.
Jason Emhoff realized just how serious a slip-up it had been to leave his fire-resistant gloves on a truck.
Now the fire was coming.
He and others had climbed the rocks. They went up there to get a vantage point on the fire. They also
believed that the rock slope would keep flames away.
So Emhoff stood there and looked out. The road wasn't far below. With him was Craven, of Ellensburg,
both trainer and friend to him. Jessica Johnson, a West Valley grad, was there. And FitzPatrick, also from
West Valley. And Weaver, one of Emhoff's best friends, with whom he had played baseball for years in
Yakima, where both their families still live.
They had come up here thinking they wouldn't have to climb into shelters. They thought they'd be
watching this horrible fire go by them. And the rock slope seemed to be a safe place to avoid fire gone out
The river was down there, not much more than 30 yards away. The road, where most of the others
gathered, was even closer.
But the fire came anyway. Nothing would stop it. And Emhoff had no gloves.
The five of them got under their shelters, though they were among big, jagged rocks that wouldn't allow
them to perform the most important function of shelter survival -- sealing it to the ground.
The heat washed over, fire with it. The powerful heat seized Emhoff's shelter. His exposed hands began to
burn. He couldn't take it. He knew he would probably die if he left the shelter, but his hands were on fire.
He jumped up and ran. He took shelter behind a boulder, but the smoke and heat was intense. His skin
searing in several places, he ran down to the van, where it still sat parked on the road.
Because of his burns, the trained emergency medical technician knew not to go to the river, where its cold
water could send him into shock.
So with ruined hands, he somehow pulled the van's door open. He climbed inside and waited to see if the
fire would pass, or if he would die in this metal box.
When they'd made it out, and the fire had crashed across the road behind them, Pete Kampen's crew had
been almost giddy.
They'd kept going until Kampen thought it was safe, then he and the other six got out. Emily Hinson joked
that, despite their job on the "little fire," the group really had gotten the fabled "big one." Someone
snapped a group photo, smoke claiming the sky in the distance.
They watched in awe as the huge coil of smoke churned into a vortex, something like a tornado laid on its
side, with a core of neon red flames that pulsed like lightning. Kampen, who had fought fires for several
years, had never seen anything like it. It was amazing, the smoke so full of unburned gasses that the air
itself was bursting into flames.
It was also terrifying.
Hinson and Watson began to pray for the firefighters trapped there, about three miles up this same road.
Maybe 10 minutes later, word came over the radio: Daniels and the others were OK. Daniels said he was
trying to keep people calm.
Then, not long after, they had to deploy their emergency shelters.
"It's not good," Daniels radioed, from inside the fiberglass blanket.
And minutes later: "We're in the river, and four are missing."
Did those four get out with the Hotshots? Do you have them? Daniels asked Kampen.
Kampen radioed back.
To the River
The thunder and heat of the storm passed. It didn't take much more than 10 minutes, though for those in
their shelters it seemed infinitely longer.
Matthew Rutman heard a man yelling for everybody to get to the river. When he finally lifted his shelter,
the world was gray. Smoke and ash.
Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer and the woman whose shelter had saved their lives pulled the pocked
aluminum blanket off and stood, looking around at a ruined landscape. Other than them, only one other
firefighter remained on the road -- a young man struggling to untangle himself from the knot of his shelter
and gloves. The man, Rutman, looked shell-shocked.
Following the Hagemeyers, he was the last of the crew to make his way to the river, where all huddled to
escape lingering flames and heat. Rebecca Welch had gone just ahead.
The river was to the east, over a strip of brush and spruce and the body of a huge fallen tree, still glowing
hot. Bruce, clad in a rugged Carhartt jacket and pants, managed to slide over the smoldering log. But Paula
was too short to clear it.
She planted her hand in the glowing coals and shrugged herself over.
That sight reminded Rutman to secure his gloves on his hands before going over, too.
Bruce and Paula stepped into the chill chest-high water of the river, welcoming the numbing coldness. It
even felt good to shiver, to have a body that could shiver. To Bruce, the water felt so good he could have
Welch had given the couple her fire shelter and they held it over their heads to keep off falling debris. The
river was filled with people, still clutching the metallic tents that saved them.
Once in the water, Welch joined Rutman. They held his shelter over them where they stood in water,
maybe three or four feet deep.
A few people laughed.
Daniels yelled, "Listen up people, we have a serious situation here." He asked to see faces. He counted the
people there, coming up with 11, and one he knew was in the van.
It was bitterly cold, and Rutman started to shake, to think about hypothermia. He and Welch huddled
together. To keep their minds from the cold, he began to tell her about a book called "Endurance," a true
tale about a 1914 expedition to Antarctica in which a ship's crew was trapped in that forbidding, cold place
for two years.
During the 20 minutes the survivors spent in the water, a tree near the bank threatened to topple over
them, and then the tires of the Hagemeyers' truck, which had escaped the fire relatively unscathed, caught
fire and exploded. People feared the gas tank would be next.
Bruce and Paula and the firefighters had just waded to the river's edge when rescuers pulled into the
If they can get in, Paula thought, then we can get out.
The storm had passed, but the forest still seethed and quaked. Trees fell. Rock tumbled. It was still
dangerous -- falling debris can injure as easily as flames.
But Pete Kampen and a handful of Entiat Hotshots jumped in a truck and charged back up the road, only
to find it blocked by fallen logs. They navigated around what they could, set about cutting and moving by
hand what they couldn't. They were working on pure adrenaline, screaming through the smoldering dams
with chain saws, dragging the logs aside.
The survivors were much farther up the road than Kampen had anticipated.
When they finally broke through, Kampen went to the van, which was unburned near the side of the road.
He opened the door to find Jason Emhoff, his hands burned in places to the bone. A Hotshot with a
trauma kit set to work on him while Kampen searched out the others.
He saw a camper truck parked in the clearing. It was on fire.
The survivors had already crawled from the river and onto the road. Behind them, part of a large tree had
crashed into the water where they had taken refuge.
Kampen found Ellreese Daniels, who was too traumatized to speak.
Then he saw Thom Taylor.
"You've got four missing?" Kampen asked him.
Taylor shook his head. "No, they're not missing."
He pointed up the rocky slope on the other side of the road.
The burning truck's horn was blaring.
"Where's Craven?" Kampen asked.
Taylor pointed to the rocks.
"Is he alive?"
Kampen and the Hotshots could see the silver shelters among the rocks on the hill. He grabbed a survival
kit and scaled the difficult slope.
One of the shelters, Kampen noticed, was still on fire.
The intense heat kept rescuers from getting close, though. They tried several approaches, circling around,
through smoking brush and fire-cracked rocks, but always the heat stopped them.
"It's too hot to get them," someone said.
They gave up.
Kampen notified air support that four bodies had been found, but they wouldn't be removed.
Right now, they needed to get the survivors out.
Minutes after 6 p.m., the Hotshots helped survivors into vehicles that would take them to a staging area at
the mouth of the canyon, away from the threat of fire. That's where Kampen had left those who made it
out with him. It was about a three-mile drive.
The Hagemeyers climbed into the van with the other survivors, Paula sitting on Bruce's lap to help make
The trip down the Forest Service road was fast and bumpy, knocking around the injured passengers.
Paula heard Daniels say, "Slow down. There's no hurry."
Other than that, there was little talk. Paula had second-degree burns on both her hands. The pain had just
begun to set in, the adrenaline to subside. She asked Thom Taylor what had happened up on the rock slope.
He told her he saw four of his crewmates dead, and knew his only chance was to run. Then he said he
didn't want to talk about it.
Avila curled his fingers gently over Paula's and kept them there.
At the staging area, Matthew Rutman walked among his crewmates, still unsure who was left behind. He
asked where Jessica Johnson was. Tears were the response.
A few felt hysteria creeping in. Rebecca Welch burst into tears and needed help changing her river-soaked
While the fire consumed the canyon behind them, after the harrowing rush to drive out on that unstable
road, the firefighting crew had been brought to safety, to the staging area. Then they were told to wait.
Those from the crew who hadn't been trapped embraced those who had. Shock set in for some of those
piling out of that overstuffed rental van.
Those with medical know-how began working on Jason Emhoff's hands. The fire had charred and melted
them down to tendon and bone. Soon, he was rushed by ambulance to an airstrip. In less than two hours,
he was being flown to the burn unit at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.
Others were rushed for medical help, too. Taylor's injuries were bad enough to warrant him a hospital visit,
as were the Hagemeyers' burns -- especially the one to Paula's hand. Welch and Scott Scherzinger had
suffered lesser burns, so they were taken the 30 miles to a clinic in Winthrop.
Daniels leaned against one of the vehicles, clutching his radio. His head sank between his arms, and he
waited for more word from the scene on the four they'd left behind.
When it came, Kampen gathered everybody. He told them the
official word. Those four -- Jessica, Devin, Karen and Tom -- were dead.
Kampen asked everybody to use this time, the hours they would spend waiting for investigators, to write
down every detail they remembered. He thought the information could be useful. But he also just wanted
to keep them busy, keep their minds from being overwhelmed.
Some wrote. Some didn't.
Armando Avila wrote, "Fourteen of us deployed. Four didn't make it."
Days of Questions
They stayed at a hotel that night. Though they hadn't slept in two days, some stayed up late, watching
movies. Not talking about what had happened.
Rutman remembers sleeping well, without dreams. It would be the best night of sleep he'd have in a while.
In many of the nights to come, he would be chased through his dreams by death.
The next morning, the crew was taken to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, where a
debriefing began. Counselors told them what to expect from their emotions. They learned about grieving.
That night was the first at the Sun Mountain Lodge, where the crew would be sequestered for days. A nice
dinner on the deck was overshadowed by columns of smoke from the Thirtymile, which had by then
grown to more than twice the size of the Libby South, the "big fire" that they'd wanted to fight.
The next day was for the federal investigators -- officials from the Forest Service and the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, both looking to pick apart every moment of Tuesday.
Then came Friday, and all were invited back to the Chewuch canyon.
Returning to Hell
It had been three days, but the land still smoldered.
Rebecca Welch stood on the road next to the quiet river, looking around. Smoke seeped through the wasted
canyon, covering the place with an acrid stink.
There in the rocks, the spot where fire took her friends. There, the unburned place in the brush where she
stayed alive. There, the fiberglass emergency shelter that saved her, nearly burned through its aluminum
Nearly burned through. So close. She almost died there.
But here she was, alive, about to go home to her family in California, still thinking about whether she
wanted to come back and keep her job fighting fires. Emotion rolled over her, just like the heat and flames
of the fire had.
She wasn't alone. Most of the others were there, some crying, some unable to lay eyes on the place for
Welch still didn't know why things had gone as they did. She had no idea why some were killed and she
was not. It was all so wrong. The trees still standing didn't look right -- half black, half green. Some things
survived intact, others exploded into ash.
Her backpack sat on the road, melted. Another, inches from it, looked untouched.
She and the others who went back tried to absorb the blackened spot in the Okanogan National Forest. So
much like every other place in this vast wilderness. But this spot, even after the gray ruins are replaced
again by fresh green, will carry an invisible scar.
For four, that's where summer jobs killed them.
The others, those who returned, those who had been inside the Thirtymile Fire, had gone back to try to
understand what had happened there. They spent about an hour looking and remembering. Then they left
the place a second time.