Work release for crew boss in fatal Wash. fire

Work release for crew boss in fatal Wash. fire

 21 August 2008

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USA — A fire crew supervisor who admitted lying to investigators about the deaths of four wildland firefighters during a central Washington blaze in 2001 was sentenced to three months of work release Wednesday.

Ellreese Daniels, 47, headed a team of wildland firefighters sent in to mop up the Thirtymile Fire, which had been sparked by an unattended campfire in the Okanogan National Forest. The fire unexpectedly exploded on July 10, 2001, trapping 14 firefighters and two hikers in the Chewuch River Canyon.

Four firefighters were killed, and although investigators found that U.S. Forest Service fire bosses had broken all 10 of the agency’s standard safety rules, including a guideline to pick a safe escape route, only Daniels was charged criminally.

He initially faced involuntary manslaughter allegations because prosecutors said he failed to order his crew to a safe area as flames approached. But those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty in April to two misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators about his actions before the deaths.

U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle emphasized during the sentencing that Daniels was being punished for the statements, not the deaths.

“I don’t think the cause of these sad, tragic deaths was yours,” he said.

But prosecutor Tom Hopkins, who sought four months in prison and a $1,000 fine, continued to blame Daniels — as did many relatives of those who died.

“Personally, I have a hard time calling that true justice,” said Kathie FitzPatrick, mother of 18-year-old Karen FitzPatrick. “I will never have any grandchildren.”

FitzPatrick said she wore her daughter’s charred wristwatch and a pair of her daughter’s shoes into court.

“If Ellreese Daniels had not been on that fire line, my son would have probably lived,” said Ken Weaver, the father of 21-year-old Devin Weaver.

Daniels, of Lake Wenatchee, did not speak. His public defender, Tina Hunt, said her client was a scapegoat for decisions made by numerous Forest Service supervisors and employees, and that the deaths were the result of a dangerous wildfire that ran amok.

“What Mr. Daniels did up there that day was not the sole cause of those firefighter deaths,” Hunt said. “The person who keeps getting blamed for everything is Ellreese Daniels.”

The other firefighters killed were Tom Craven, 30, and Jessica Johnson, 19. All four were from central Washington.

Craven’s father, Will, said Daniels should not serve any jail time.

“Wind and fire killed the four people on the rocks,” said Craven, who has had six children work as firefighters. “Fighting fires is dangerous.”

Daniels continues to work for the Forest Service, but no longer fights fires.

In addition to the three months of work release, Daniels was sentenced to three years of probation. The judge said he also must complete mental health and alcohol abuse evaluations and any treatment that is needed. He was ordered to abstain from alcohol during the probation period and may not work as a firefighter.

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