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 was actually only 25 acres in size when 21 Forest Service firefighters were dispatched to contain it.
Later investigation shows that the wildfire was handed over to several crews, obviously still uncontrolled. A second crew, the "Entiat Hotshots" crew experienced equipment failure and had to withdraw. The third and ill-fated "Northwest Regulars #6" crew was dispatched and suffered the brunt of the disaster. One ironic footnote was that a water bucket drop was delayed because of environmental concerns.
The hotshot crew firefighters eventually deployed their safety shelters as the fire overran them but four died from asphyxia. One firefighter, Rebecca Welch, sheltered herself and two hikers in a fire shelter designed for one person - all survived. Some crew-members 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 (depending on the forest plan) 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.