USA — The federal government has charged a U.S. Forest Service crew bosswith involuntary manslaughter for his decisions in the line of duty thatallegedly caused the deaths of four Forest Service firefighters.
According to a criminal complaint filed Dec. 19 in the U.S. District Courtfor the Eastern District of Washington, Ellreese Daniels acted “in agrossly negligent manner that constituted wanton or reckless disregard for humanlife” while he led a crew of firefighters in efforts to suppress a wildfirein the Okanogan National Forest in Washington state. Daniels, at the time, was aForest Service crew boss trainer and was serving as incident commander for thewildfire, which is known as the Thirtymile Fire.
The complaint asserts that Daniels’ poor decisions on July 10, 2001, alloweda team of 14 firefighters to become trapped by the wildfire in the Chewuch Riverbox canyon. The fire burned over Daniels’ crew and two civilians, killing squadboss Tom Craven and rookie firefighters Karen Fitzpatrick, Jessica Johnson andDevin Weaver. Firefighter Jason Emhoff sustained serious burns.
Daniels is being charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and sevencounts of making material false statements to the Forest Service and OSHA.According to the complaint, Daniels made the false statements when the twoagencies as part of their investigations of the firefighters’ deaths interviewed Daniels about his actions during the Thirtymile Fire.
An attorney for Daniels said that the leveling of criminal charges againstDaniels sets a bad precedent that is tantamount to firefighters “beingsecond-guessed in the field by people who weren’t there.”
Affidavit: Conditions Were Right for “Extreme Fire Behavior”
The complaint contains a lengthy affidavit by John Parker, a special agentwith the Department of Agriculture-Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG). TheForest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.
As part of USDA-OIG’s investigation of the Thirtymile Fire deaths, Parkerinterviewed Daniels’ surviving crew members and others involved in thefirefighting efforts.
According to Parker’s affidavit, roughly half of Daniels’ crew members wererookies. After several hours of struggling to fight the fire, Daniels and crewboss trainee Pete Kampen disengaged their crew from fighting the fire and wentto a designated “lunch spot.” “They indicated to the crew thatthey had lost the fire and that it would be an ‘air show,'” Parker wrote.
Daniels and part of his crew later left the lunch area to assist a fireengine with a spot fire in another part of the canyon. In the affidavit, Parkeris critical of Daniels’ decision to leave the lunch area.
“Mr. Daniels acknowledged in the videotaped interview on July 12, 2001,that green foliage had been burning earlier in the day, which he recognized wasunusual,” Parker wrote. “Moreover, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Kampendisengaged the fire earlier in the day after trees began torching, whichgenerated airborne embers that caused spot fires. In the videotaped interview,Mr. Daniels said that the fire had made ‘pretty intense’ quarter-mile runs, thatthe relative humidity had fallen to about 8 or 9 percent, that the wind wasabout 17 mph and that the winds were pushing up canyon after he disengaged thefire on the east side of the river and pulled the crew back to the lunch area.”
“These conditions would support extreme fire behavior. Nevertheless, Mr.Daniels re-engaged the fire without posting a lookout who could see what thefire was doing. Similarly, Mr. Daniels did not send anyone to scout the firebefore re-engaging.”
Daniels Expressed Belief that the “Fire Would Burn Around Them”
Eventually, Daniels and “two squads of the relatively inexperienced firecrew” and two civilian hikers found themselves trapped by the fire in thebox canyon. Daniels instructed his 14-member team to “retreat north to alocation on the road, parallel to the Chewuch River.”
According to Parker’s affidavit, Daniels and the two squads waited at thatlocation for more than a half-hour before the fire reached them.
“Mr. Daniels repeatedly told crew members to stay calm and expressed hisbelief that the fire would burn around them,” Parker wrote. “His planwas to let the fire burn by to the north, up canyon, and then to drive south onthe road and out of the canyon. He took no steps to prepare the site or the crewfor a possible deployment of individual fire shelters.
“Even though an entrapment is viewed by firefighting agencies as ahighly unusual and undesirable development, Mr. Daniels did not notify dispatchof the entrapment.”
Fire Orders Violated, Watch-Outs Ignored
Parker asserts that Daniels violated several fire orders, including “recognizecurrent weather conditions and obtain forecasts” and “establishlookouts in potentially hazardous situations.” He also alleges that Danielsignored several watch-out situations, including “weather becoming hotterand drier.”
Violating and ignoring these accepted fire safety practices, according toParker, caused Daniels and two of his squads to become trapped. After that,”Daniels engaged in gross negligence by failing to prepare the crew for apossible deployment” of their individual fire shelters.
At 5:24 p.m., “the fire jumped the river with great intensity and burnedover” Daniels’ two squads and the two civilians. Referencing an interviewwith crew member Scott Scherzinger, Parker notes that the crew “knew wherethe fire was coming from and could see it getting darker from the smoke.”
“Mr. Scherzinger said that the smoke column was building, there were200-foot flames through the tops of the trees and they could hear the firecoming through the trees,” Parker wrote. “Then the embers startedcoming down. The fire progressed from spot fires to flames coming all over them,all within about 5 to 10 minutes, more likely 5 minutes. It went from asituation where conversation was still possible to sounding like a freight trainwas coming over them.”
Although the crew members deployed their fire shelters eight on the roadand six on an uneven scree slope Craven, Fitzpatrick, Johnson and Weaverdied from asphyxiation when they “inhaled superheated air that had enteredtheir shelters, apparently through openings on the uneven ground.”
Attorney: Prosecution of Daniels Could Have “Chilling Effect”
Attorney Christina Hunt, who is representing Daniels, explained to OccupationalHazards.comthat firefighters must make rapid-fire decisions in constantly changingenvironments. She asserted that the federal government’s prosecution of Danielscould have a “chilling effect on the ability of firefighters to dotheir job.”
“Knowledge that any decision you make could result in a criminal chargebeing placed against you is going to limit the number of people who want toengage in firefighting, because they’re going to be constantly concerned thatthey could be criminally charged for any decisions that they make,” Hunttold OccupationalHazards.com.
Hunt added that, based on “the history and the culture of wildlandfirefighting,” Daniels’ actions were not unusual.
“And I think the evidence is going to play that out,” she said.