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Washington officials evacuate 4,000 homes as unrelenting wildfire turns deadly

Three firefighters were killed battling the fast-moving Twisp fire in Washington after their vehicle crashed and was consumed by flames.

Ted S. Warren/AP
A wildfire burns behind a home on Twisp River Road, Thursday, in Twisp, Wash. Authorities on Wednesday afternoon urged people in the north-central Washington town to evacuate because of a fast-moving wildfire.

The wildfires raging in the West and eating up thousands of acres of drought-starved terrain have claimed the lives of three firefighters in Washington state. Their vehicle crashed and was caught by a fast-moving blaze, authorities said. Four other firefighters were injured in the accident.

The casualties came Wednesday as firefighters in the northern central part of the state are stretched thin battling a variety of blazes.

"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 incident, which happened near the town of Twisp, are the most recent deaths in this year’s especially intense wildfire season, which has seen 29,000 firefighters battle dozens of fires across the American West. The more than 1 million acres burned across the parched Western region has led state and local officials to call in the US Army and outside help to protect homes and property.

The Forest Service statement identified the dead as US Forest Service firefighters. Of the four injured, two are with the state Department of Natural Resources employees, one is a DNR contractor, and one is a Forest Service worker.

"The firefighters were engaged in initial attack operations and were involved in a vehicle accident when it is believed that the fire overtook the vehicle," the statement from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest said, relaying information from Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.

The fast-moving Twisp fire has prompted the forced evacuations of around 4,000 homes in the area, which sits in the Northern part of the state in the foothills of the normally scenic Cascade mountains.

Cars moved bumper-to-bumper amid a backdrop of acrid smoke as people tried to get out of the dangerous area, lining up several cars deep for gasoline.

County officials were continuing to expand the evacuation zone late Wednesday and said that the weather forecast for the next two days indicates high winds, which could whip flames over the dried brush and forest.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the eastern portion of the state until 5 p.m. Friday. Officials said temperatures will climb above 90 degrees and relative humidity will drop as low as 14 percent.

About fifty miles south of the Twisp blaze, firefighters have contained about half of another wildfire which threatens the resort town of Chelan, Wash., fire information officer Lorena Wisehart said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has requested an official declaration of a federal emergency which would funnel more funding to pay for fighting the wildfires raging across the state.

In an emailed statement, the White House said President Obama had been notified of the deaths and directed the administration to provide federal assistance to state and local officials as needed.

"On behalf of a grateful nation, the president's thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

This report includes materials from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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