YAKIMA Federal firefighters are still wondering whether they could be the next to face felony charges after a U.S. Forest Service crew boss avoided trial by making a lesser plea. But a Yakima attorney involved in civil suits related to the Thirtymile Fire suggested Wednesday that Ellreese Daniels’ admission that he was guilty of lying to investigators sets a tougher standard for future prosecution of any firefighters deemed responsible for deaths on the fire line. The latest developments in the Thirtymile saga come as firefighters across the country prepare for another season. Some crews are already assigned to a big blaze burning in Southern California. Daniels pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane, averting a federal trial on manslaughter charges in the July 10, 2001, deaths of four Central Washington firefighters. He had been set to go before a jury starting Monday. The families of the Thirtymile firefighters and to some degree, those in the wildland fire service had hoped a trial would resolve the question of whether federal firefighters could face criminal charges for deaths on the fire line. Daniels’ case was the first time the federal government had brought such charges. Killed were Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg; and Yakima residents Karen FitzPatrick, 18, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Devin Weaver, 21. Investigations by the U.S. Forest Service and the Yakima Herald-Republic found that a series of supervisors did not take steps they should have, including selection of a safe escape route. But Daniels’ attorney argued that fire behavior and terrain played a large role and that Daniels never meant to act recklessly or negligently. Dick Mangan was one of many firefighters across the country to volunteer his time to help Daniels’ federal defender. Mangan acknowledged that the plea was the best for Daniels, if not for his colleagues who are left to wonder whether their names will be on an indictment for some future death. “Living vicariously through him was not the way to get this resolved,” said Mangan, a retired Forest Service firefighter who now consults on firefighting and safety. “We had nothing to lose, and he did.” The families generally take the opposite tack, suggesting that Daniels should have been held accountable for locking the crew into a trap on a dead-end road and failing to prepare them for being burned over by the flames. Some victims’ relatives say the government offered the plea deal because of concerns that witnesses, including current and former Forest Service employees, would waver in their testimony at trial. Barb Weaver, Devin’s mother, said the plea was just one more step in the search for accountability. She and her husband, Ken, are still pursuing a federal lawsuit against two Forest Service employees. The lawsuit alleges that the pair destroyed Devin Weaver’s fire shelter and withheld vital information about the reliability of the shelters. Mariano Morales, a Yakima attorney who worked on the legal case that brought a separate settlement from the shelter manufacturer for the Thirtymile families and two Thorp campers trapped in the fire, suggested that Tuesday’s plea indeed set an unsatisfactory precedent. Daniels’ disputed statements didn’t kill anyone, Morales pointed out, regardless of the prosecutors’ statement that truthfulness is critical to investigations. “Telling the truth to investigators doesn’t do anything to make them make better decisions in the heat of the moment,” said Morales, a former Forest Service firefighter. He suggested that other firefighters can now use Daniels’ case to argue that whatever they did wasn’t as bad. “That’s the message, is that you can behave like Ellreese did … and as long as you don’t lie about it, we won’t do anything about it. That’s the message they are sending, and I think it’s the wrong message,” Morales said. Critics of the decision to charge Daniels in the first place remain convinced that federal prosecutors sent a chilling message to firefighters in the Forest Service and the four other primary federal firefighting agencies. Casey Judd, director of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which lobbies for federal firefighters, suggested that the resolution of the criminal case could reinvigorate efforts to clarify federal legislation requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service to independently investigate burnover deaths of Forest Service employees. The law was passed after Thirtymile. Although it was not written to require criminal charges, only to provide a report to Congress, a USDA special agent spearheaded the case against Daniels for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The families who endured the loss of their children say they are working to make sure no other parents have to suffer what they went through. Daniels’ case was supposed to set the standard and let fire commanders know that they had a serious incentive to keep their crews safe, said Kathie FitzPatrick, Karen’s mother. “If there’s not justice this time, there will be a next time. We were really hoping that would be different,” she said.