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Washington governor: State facing "unprecedented cataclysm"

TWISP, Wash. -- Gov. Jay Inslee says Washington is facing an "unprecedented cataclysm" from the many fires raging across the dry state.

At a Thursday news conference with fire officials in central Washington, Inslee praised the courage of the 3,000 firefighters battling wildfires in the state. He says the state was grieving three firefighters killed Wednesday near Twisp, words echoed by Washington's U.S. senators and fire managers.

Inslee says the fires "have burned a big hole in our state's heart." The governor says more than 450 square miles were burning in the state this year, an increase from about 390 square miles last year.

Fire officials warned that winds topping 40 miles per hour would complicate efforts Thursday and that the blazes would almost certainly spread.

On Wednesday night three firefighters died after their vehicle crashed and was likely caught by flames as they battled a blaze in Washington, authorities said. Four other firefighters were injured. One firefighter remains in critical condition.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) officials announced Thursday that notifications had been made to the families of the firefighters. The firefighters who died were identified as: Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31. Daniel Lyon, 25, was injured and is being treated at Harborview Hospital in Seattle.

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Tom Zbyszewski. Tom Zbyszewski's Facebook page
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A photo of Andrew Zajac from Facebook. Andrew Zajac's Facebook page

Zbyszewski was a junior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, majoring in physics and active in the school's theater department, the college's president said in a statement. He was fighting a fire near his hometown of Carlton when he died.

CBS News interviewed Zbyszewski's parents. They said this was his second summer fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service, in his own community.

"Being able to help protect the homes of he people he knew," said his mother Jennifer. "That was important to him."

Battling fires was a family affair for the Zbyszewski's. Tom's dad Richard was a firefighter and his mother still works for the Forest Service.

"I was more proud of him than I could ever express," said his mother Jennifer through tears. "We know that he would want us and everyone to be happy. So that's what we have to do, work towards that to you know, to get to the point when we can feel be happy again."

"I don't know when that's gonna happen," said his father Richard.

"But I know that's what he would want," Jennifer added.

A previous Forest Service statement identified the dead as U.S. 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 U.S. Forest Service worker.

Weather conditions for firefighters in Washington are worse Thursday with high temperatures, dry conditions and strong winds moving through the state.

Officials said that weather conditions Thursday creates one of the highest risk days of the firefighting season for firefighters battling the flames.

Dan Calvert is a baseball coach in Twisp and knew one of the three fighters who died.

"Nobody is going to be able to replace these kids," he said through tears.

The casualties near Twisp came Wednesday as firefighters on several fronts fought against raging wildfires advancing on towns in the north-central part of the state.

"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," said the statement from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, relaying information from Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.

"It was a hellstorm up here," Rogers told CBS News. "We just know the fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction and then it would shift."

It wasn't immediately clear if the four injured were also involved in the accident.

During the press conference Thursday Inslee expressed his condolences to the families of the firefighters lost. The Governor also asked for federal funding to help fight the fires.

Who were the fallen firefighters?

"My heart breaks over the loss of life," Inslee had said previously in a statement. "I know all Washington joins me and Trudi in sending our prayers to the families of these brave firefighters. They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense."

Firefighting officials said more than 1,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in parts of Washington.

Firefighting crews have called on military personnel to help fight the flames. During a press conference Thursday officials said that currently they have a group of five, 20-person crews from the Washington National Guard helping fight the fires.

Three firefighters killed in Washington wildfires

The firefighter in critical condition has severe burns and remains in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Thursday, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.

"He's got a lot of family by the bedside and I think that obviously helps and we're hopeful," she said.

"We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters," said Mike Williams, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor.

The White House said President Obama directed his administration to stay in touch with state and local officials and to provide federal assistance as necessary.

"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.

The news of the firefighters came after officials urged people in the popular outdoor-recreation centers of Twisp and Wintrop, in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, to evacuate.

The Okanogan County Emergency Management department issued the order for the towns, which combined have a population of about 1,300.

Hot, dry weather fueling wildfires across the West

A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 50 square miles and prompted the evacuation of Conconully, home to about 200 people 20 miles northwest of Omak -- with further urgent evacuation orders issued Wednesday night for an area south of Conconully to the Omak town line.

To the south, more than 1,100 firefighters were combating a fire that topped 108 square miles and was still threatening the resort town of Chelan.

Angela Seydel, a spokeswoman for Okanogan Emergency Management, said Wednesday evening that 4,000 homes in the region had been evacuated.

"It is really bad out there. The fires have just exploded," she said. "We're just directing everybody to head south."

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A wildfire burns behind a home on Twisp River Road, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 in Twisp, Wash. AP

A stream of cars poured south out of Twisp as dark smoke clouds loomed; the highway to the north was closed. Some people put sprinklers on their roofs to protect their homes, and others joined lines for gasoline that were several cars deep.

This season, 13 people have died battling wildfires, including the three in Washington, said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. She said it was a high number but could not immediately compare it to other years.

"Our firefighting personnel have been particularly hard hit this year," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling it an "extraordinarily challenging wildfire season."

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.

Drought and heat have combined to make this fire season one of the most active in the United States in recent years. Nearly 29,000 firefighters are battling some 100 large blazes across the West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California.

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