The fire was ignited by a camper's fire 30 miles north of Winthrop in Okanogan National Forest in the Chewuch River Valley. The blaze grew to just 25 acres in size when 21 Forest Service firefighters were dispatched to contain it. After the crew arrived, the fire blew up and surrounded them. The firefighters deployed their safety shelters, but four died. One firefighter (Rebecca Welch) sheltered herself and two hikers in a safety shelter designed for one person. Some crewmembers found safety in the water of a creek. The fire grew to 9,300 acres before it was brought under control.
There were no towns or structures near the fire. Under Forest Service policy, managers were obligated to fight the fire because it was started by human activity. Naturally occurring fires, such as those started by lightning, were allowed to burn. Had the fire started one mile to the west in a designated wilderness area, regardless of origin, it might have been allowed to burn because of the fire management plan in place for wilderness areas.
Killed in the fire were:
- Tom Craven, 30, Ellensburg
- Karen FitzPatrick, 18, Yakima
- Devin Weaver, 21, Yakima
- Jessica Johnson, 19, Yakima
An investigation faulted 11 Forest Service employees who had violated safety rules and disregarded signs of danger. This incident and the deaths of 14 firefighters in Colorado in 1994 caused a rethinking of Forest Service firefighting policies, including not fighting a fire if it is not safe to do so.
Officials have tracked fatalities in Washington forest fires since 1929. In 1974, five firefighters died in a vehicle rollover.