AP Exclusive: Washington firefighter shares story about wildfire that overran truck

From his rear seat on Engine 31, Michael Rhine watched the fire, seemingly at a safe distance. But as the engineer swung the truck around to face the one way out, a big stand of sagebrush blew up into a 40-foot wall of flame. Amid zero visibility and intense heat, Engine 31 was engulfed, crashing through a dirt barrier and a barbed-wire fence before faltering to a stop.

"They're off the road," someone yelled on the radio. "Probably need a mayday."

The two firefighters in front bailed out the driver's door, but Rhine couldn't budge the back door. It was so hot his hand blistered as he tried to push it open.

The others yelled at him to go out the front, but he couldn't hear over the roar of the fire. They began to flee, and he dove over the seat, out the door and to the ground. As the three sprinted across a field in search of safety, Rhine felt the fire burning his ears. He kept running.

The wildfire that broke out Sunday west of downtown Yakima, an agricultural hub known for tree fruit, wine grapes and hops for beer, burned across nearly 10 square miles before firefighters contained it. The blaze destroyed a vacant home, a vacant structure owned by the state and four outbuildings. Fences, pump houses and fruit trees were damaged.

Also lost: Engine 31, a structure protection fire truck valued at $400,000.

The three firefighters on board suffered minor injuries. But their narrow escape illustrates the dangers of fighting wildfire in the arid West, where tinder-dry land and blustery winds can almost instantly turn a routine blaze into a killer.

Rhine took up volunteer firefighting some two years ago, initially to bond with his son. When the son pursued other interests, the father found he enjoyed it and continued training.

Rhine relishes the volunteer work that fills his summers. The 50-year-old school counselor said it makes him feel as if he's "going on 35."

The 2010 fire season started quietly here with a wet spring, though recent temperatures well into the 90s dried the grasslands and forest floors out quickly.

Blue skies and sunshine greeted Rhine Sunday, so he spent the day riding his motorcycle. He noticed the plume of smoke drifting from behind a ridge just after 2 p.m. while riding home.

Rhine stopped in at the station. No calls yet. But he went home, put on his firefighting pants and shirt and gathered his gear. Then the call came.

Mike Willette spent the afternoon touching up the paint on his new horse barn, monitoring the smoke from his home atop a bluff at the end of a narrow, dead-end driveway.

A neighbor hollered over from his orchard: "Michael, you keeping an eye on that smoke? I lived through this as a kid, and you can't run fast enough."

When Willette saw the fire reach the bottom of the hill, he told his wife, Suzan, time to go.

Suzan gathered photos and other keepsakes, and Willette scattered sprinklers to protect the house. His wife drove away in one car. He followed in another, stopping briefly to halter their two horses and release them.

Engine 31 entered the driveway as Willette pulled away.

"I'm sending 31 down there. We do need to protect the egress. They have one way in, one way out," a lookout said.

"Copy. If we have to get people outta there, get 'em moving," a command voice replied. "Hey, no heroics. You know, we don't want anybody to get hurt."

Rhine surveyed unburned fields as the truck picked its way over the bumpy dirt lane toward the house and Engine 45, a water truck already in place. He didn't see any signs of immediate danger. His driver began to turn the 30-foot fire truck around at the end to beat a hasty retreat if need be.

Routine chatter continued over the radio for a few minutes before a voice bursts in: "Three-one, get out. Get out."

Rhine felt the heat, the smoke getting thicker.

Another voice, much more urgently, seconds later: "It's heading west. Get 31 outta there!"

Yakima has been scarred by wildfire before. In 2001, four area firefighters died battling the Thirtymile fire in north-central Washington's Okanogan National Forest. An investigation found that fire bosses had broken all 10 U.S. Forest Service standard safety rules and ignored numerous signs of danger.

This week, Rhine and the two other firefighters sprinted across a field and found safety beyond Willette's barn. Another truck swooped in to pick them up and an ambulance carried them to a hospital.

Over the radio: "Lost the damn truck, but everybody's accounted for."

Injuries were minor: a twisted ankle, smoke inhalation and cuts. Rhine suffered second-degree burns to his ears.

Safety was the top priority Sunday, Rhine said. He said he doesn't believe any safety rules were broken. Quite simply, fire is erratic.

"We went into a situation that was deemed safe. We knew there was some risk, but the fire behavior changed within seconds," he said.

He still considers himself a rookie, despite many hours of training. His two colleagues on the truck had several years of experience. Both have declined comment. West Valley Fire and Rescue officials also declined to discuss the incident during the third-party investigation.

"I remember thinking I was going to die," Rhine said, but added that getting stuck in the cab of a burning truck wasn't a defining moment in his life.

"The care and compassion I received from brother and sister firefighters afterward was the defining moment to me," he said. "Living through it and experiencing the love and support from fellow firefighters and others in my life."

Willette's house survived the fire. His new barn did not.

"I'm so glad they're alive," Willette said.