WASHINGTON state wildfire survivors didn't realize how close they were to dying

Monday, August 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LEAVENWORTH, Wash. (AP) _ When Nick Dreis went down, several 100-foot-tall flames from an out-of-control wildfire were 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.

Nearby, Armando Avila prayed for the supervisor 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, meanwhile, just figured she was a goner.

But all three survived the 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.

After nearly a month, some members of the fire crew spoke Friday about their recollections of the 9,300-acre fire which swept over them with terrifying force.

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.

``Once I was in the shelter, I thought if I'm going to make it, this is my best chance,'' he said.

His radio was on and could hear the reassuring chatter of his crew boss, Ellreese Daniels, relaying information to a spotter plane.

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

Avila also was worried about his squad boss, Thom Taylor _ whom Avila had last seen walking around the boulders where the bodies of the four who died would be found.

``I prayed for him constantly,'' Avila said.

Hurd, 18, and 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.

``I was hoping the whole fire would change course,'' Dreis said.

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 said he 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.

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

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.

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

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