THORP, Wash. - A former Bozeman man who survived a wildfire that killed four firefighters says he and his wife are alive because of the heroism of another firefighter who was injured while saving them.
Bruce Hagemeyer, 53, and his wife Paula, 50, who live outside this Kittitas County hamlet, were treated for smoke inhalation and burns. Firefighter Rebecca Welch, 22, of Naches, was treated for second-degree burns on her right side following the ordeal.
All were out of the hospital Wednesday, a day after the Thirty Mile fire exploded in a canyon along the Chewuch River north of Winthrop. Hagemeyer, his red-rimmed eyes flat and distant, said in an interview in his home Wednesday that Welch had him and his wife join her in her emergency fire shelter, a device resembling a pup tent that is designed for one person and can accommodate two in a pinch.
"There's no question that she saved us," he said. "No doubt about it at all. We would have died."
Dr. Ann Diamond, who treated Welch at the Country Clinic in Winthrop, said the firefighter was injured because she could not get completely inside the survival tent.
"It was an heroic act," Diamond said.
"They said they were yelling for help and that Welch responded and deployed her shelter and helped them get beneath it," the doctor said. "Then she crawled in on top of them, but she didn't quite fit." Hagemeyer, who moved to Thorp from Bozeman in 1987, said he and his wife were looking for a quiet place for the last night of a three-day vacation when they drove their Dodge pickup north up the Chewuch on Tuesday morning.
Passing a charred area, they saw U.S. Forest Service trucks but no firefighters and thought the burn was under control. A few miles upriver, at the end of the road, they pitched camp at the Thirtymile campground.
Then, Hagemeyer said, he saw smoke rising high in the sky from the direction they had driven.
"I said smoke … fire. One way out. We'd better go," he recalled. As they broke camp and headed south, the smoke plume grew.
A couple of miles down the road, at the base of the canyon near a flat spot in the river with a broad sand bar, the Hagemeyers encountered a retreating Forest Service crew and learned they had been cut off by the fire.
Moments later they heard the roar of the approaching flames.
Hagemeyer and his wife exchanged their shorts for long pants and he donned a canvas-covered work coat as the firefighters prepared their portable heat shields.
Burning limbs, blown over the canyon wall by the intense air currents of the firestorm, sailed over the canyon wall and landed on the other side of the river. Trees exploded in flames.
Hagemeyer heard a crew leader yell, "Don't panic!"
When the full intensity of the heat hit the group, they joined Welch under her shelter, anchoring bits of the material beneath their legs and arms to keep it from flipping away. They used their hands to beat out the flames in the brush beside them and douse smoldering patches in each others' clothes.
When the roar diminished, they heard a call from other firefighters to move into the water.
From the river they could see Hagemeyer's truck on fire. Moving downstream, they watched the top of a burning tree break and fall into the river near a place where they had been standing.
Finally they reached an undamaged van from the firefighting crew and drove to safety.