USA — The government’s decision to file criminal charges against the boss of firefighters who perished during a 2001 wildfire in Washington state has potential fire supervisors having second thoughts about taking on the dangerous duty.
Ellreese Daniels was charged last week with four counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from his role as a U.S. Forest Service crew boss during the Thirtymile wildfire in Okanogan County in July 2001.
Lawyers for Daniels and other federal employees targeted in the government’s investigation of the Thirtymile fire’s handling say the criminal charges are inappropriate. They say many of the nation’s wildland firefighters now worry they could end up facing criminal allegations for mistakes they make on the job.
Several firefighting veterans said the new rules have them buying personal liability insurance to protect their homes and pensions in case they get called into court, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported in its Thursday editions.
“We certainly don’t want to see a fire season where we can’t find adequate people to manage the scene because the DA in Washington state decided to bring manslaughter charges, whether it’s warranted or not,” said Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which lobbies on behalf of federal firefighters.
Elton Thomas, a retired Okanogan National Forest fire management officer, said he believes Daniels could have done more to prevent the Thirtymile deaths, but didn’t mean for anyone to die.
Whatever the outcome of the criminal charges, the case will change the nation’s firefighting system, he said.
“There’s maybe going to be a new `normal’ out of this that people are going to have to adjust to, but it’s going to be a significant effect,” Thomas said.
Daniels’ public defender called the charges baseless and contended he’s being singled out among many in the chain of command who made mistakes.
Debra Roth, a Washington, D.C., attorney whose firm represented some targets of the Thirtymile investigation, also questioned the government’s decision to prosecute.
“This is a guy who’s going to work … and he’s doing his job, terrible things happened and four people died. It’s not your typical manslaughter case,” Roth said.
The deaths brought about changes in the way the Forest Service and other federal firefighting agencies attack wildfires, as well as new rules for reviewing wildfire deaths.
The families of the dead firefighters successfully pushed Congress to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to independently investigate whenever a Forest Service crew is fatally overcome by flames.
Ken Weaver, whose son Devin died at Thirtymile, said Daniels wouldn’t be facing charges if the deaths were unavoidable. Daniels failed to guarantee an escape route, a cardinal safety rule in the Forest Service, Weaver contends.
“This is a poster child for prosecution,” Weaver said. “As long as you follow the rules and do everything you can, you’re not going to get in trouble. The only thing you get in trouble for is not following the rules.”
Advocates for firefighters already are calling for Congress to reconsider whether criminal charges are the best answer for deaths on the firelines.
Daniels also faces seven counts of lying to investigators about his role in fighting the 9,300-acre fire, which grew from an unattended campfire.
Prosecutors allege Daniels knew, or should have known, the crew would be trapped and that he failed to protect them during at least 30 minutes they had to prepare for the approaching inferno.
Killed were Yakima firefighters Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, and their squad boss trainee, Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg.
The government’s approach raises questions about the use of manslaughter charges, Roth contends. The charge is more typically used in cases of unintentionally deadly conduct, such as drunk driving, or when police questionably use deadly force, he said.
“They are a stretch away from the kinds of acts or omissions that occurred or may have occurred in any of these fires,” Roth said. “From a legal perspective, it’s an interesting use of the statute.”
Judd said Congress should reconsider what it wanted when it passed the bill.
He said he isn’t suggesting that criminal charges be off-limits for every fire death. But he said the legislation – a well-intended effort to appease the grieving Thirtymile families – didn’t consider all the ramifications.
“There was no thought process given to how the dynamics of the legislation would play out,” Judd said. “I think if they actually had hearings and had firefighters there, maybe there wouldn’t have been a bill, or it would have been written differently.”