USA — After criminal charges were filed against a wildfire crew boss shortly before Christmas, several groups voiced concerns that the government’s decision will result in less-qualified wildland firefighting personnel.
Ellreese Daniels — charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter — was the crew boss during the Yakima, Wash. Thirtymile wildfire in July 2001.
Prosecutors allege that Daniels should have known that the four firefighters who perished in the fire would be trapped and should have better protected them.
The fallen firefighters were Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, Karen FitzPatrick, 18, and squad boss trainee Tom Craven, 30.
In a press release issued by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA) one week after the charges were filed, the two groups announced their opposition to the government’s decision.
IAWF’s Past President Dick Mangan believes the choice of the victim’s families to push the government to pursue charges will lead experienced wildland firefighters to ultimately choose not to do it any more.
“With this criminalization now of a (crew boss) people like me may decide they are not going to be on the active fire lines now,” the 40-year wildland firefighting veteran who stepped down from his three-year post as IAWF’s president in December said.
“A lot of people will say ‘I’m going to take my 30-plus years of experience and stay home this summer.’ “
Ken Weaver, Devin’s father, told the Associated Press that Daniels would not be facing charges if they were unwarranted.
“This is a poster child for prosecution,” he 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.”
Mangan disagrees, noting that when the charges were released, Daniels was made out to look like a villain. “Anyone in the fire service knows that you don’t go into it without having a sense of responsibility for those around you,” he said. “With this kind of legalistic approach, they are trying to criminalize members of the fire service.
“What we have here are some upset families who are going though the grieving process and we understand that,” he said. “I know the parents say it’s going to make firefighting safer, but I disagree … I think it’s going to do the exact opposite.”
Since the Thirtymile fire, the families have pushed Congress to change the way wildland firefighting deaths are reviewed. This included Public Law 107-203, which requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open an independent investigation when a Forest Service crew is fatally overcome by flames.
“Our biggest push right now is getting Congressional hearings on (PL 107-203) to get an idea of what the exact intention for wildland firefighting was,” FWSA spokesman Casey Judd said.
This is the first time criminal charges have been filed against a crew boss. The last case in which a wildland fire official faced the threat of criminal charges was following the Idaho Cramer Fire in July 2003 when two firefighters died in the line of duty.
The incident commander avoided a criminal conviction through a plea deal and received 18 months probation.
Judd said following the Cramer Fire, wildland firefighters were already handed a big blow and that the Thirtymile charges have just added to that.
“The criminal charges have compounded that so you see more folks not taking assignments,” he said.
“We are going to have less qualified people out there,” Mangan said. “I believe there is going to be a trend towards that.” He added that there is a steep learning curve and that it usually takes a person between six and eight years to become a crew boss.
U.S. Forest Service and National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) spokeswoman Rose Davis disagrees with the organizations’ sentiments that firefighters will pass on assignments, saying there’s little data to support the belief.
“I don’t have any evidence either way,” she said. “There is no data that says this is happening and no crystal ball that says it will.”
Davis also said the Forest Service hasn’t had any problems filling classes, but wouldn’t speculate on the effect of the charges on interest.
Mangan said the change may not be seen in data and that the number of firefighters may not decrease, but that the amount of experience will. This is why he believes the decision to file criminal charges against Daniels will ultimately change the culture of wildland firefighting.
“Whatever happens right now, people are going to go about their actions more carefully and with a much more cautious eye,” he said. “There’s no payoff to taking risks; there’s no payoff to being aggressive. People (in the industry) are very concerned and very worried and rightfully so.”