Dismissal of parents’ lawsuit marks end of Thirtymile Fire litigation

 Dismissal of parents’ lawsuit marks end of Thirtymile Fire litigation

23 April 2009

published by www.yakima-herald.com

USA — The last lawsuit related to the Thirtymile forest fire in 2001 has been dismissed, ending major developments in the tragic case that killed four Central Washington firefighters.

Ken and Barb Weaver of Yakima, parents of firefighter Devin Weaver, agreed to withdraw their lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service earlier this month in U.S. District Court.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boise, Idaho, which has handled the civil litigation tied to Thirtymile, announced the end of the case Wednesday.

The Weavers had argued that Maureen Hanson, the administrative officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, disposed of Devin Weaver’s fire shelter to block the parents’ contention in a separate lawsuit that the shelters were defective. Devin Weaver and three other firefighters died despite deploying their shelters on a rocky slope as the fire roared toward them.

Hanson countered in pretrial motions that she did dispose of the shelter but didn’t do so because of the lawsuit.

“While our hearts go out to the families of the firefighters whose sons and daughters perished in the tragic Thirtymile fire, I am pleased that we were able to successfully defend the actions of a conscientious public servant and vindicate her reputation,” Thomas Moss, the U.S. attorney in Idaho, said in a statement.

Barb Weaver acknowledged Wednesday that the dismissal was likely the last official fallout from the Thirtymile deaths, unless Congress decides to take more action.

Although Congress passed a bill designed to improve fatality investigations, the sweeping changes sought by the Weavers never survived.

“We think we made some strides, but did we really get to where we wanted to go? No, we didn’t,” Barb Weaver said, adding that she and her husband sought accountability, not money.

The Weavers said they wanted to make sure supervisors on the fire line could be held personally responsible for their actions. Under federal law, the Forest Service can’t be fined by labor regulators, and it’s difficult for outside parties to sue the agency.

“We didn’t really want to sue her,” Weaver said about the case against Hanson. “We wanted to sue the Forest Service.”

The case was handicapped once the Weavers’ attorneys determined they did not have the evidence to prove Hanson intentionally got rid of the shelter, Barb Weaver said.

A separate lawsuit against the private shelter manufacturers by the Weavers and the other firefighters’ families over the shelters’ construction was settled in 2006 for a confidential amount.

In addition to Devin Weaver, the Thirtymile fire killed firefighters Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg, and Yakima residents Karen FitzPatrick, 18, and Jessica Johnson, 19.

The fire was sparked by an abandoned picnic fire about 30 miles north of Winthrop, Wash., along the Chewuch River. The four died when their fire shelter deployment site was overrun by the fire.

The Weavers argued in the case against Hanson that although Devin Weaver’s shelter was properly sealed, they suspect that he died due to gases, including cyanide, that were released as the shelter glue and other materials burned.

Co-defendant George Jackson, a now-retired staff member at the Forest Service research and investigation center in Missoula, Mont., was earlier dismissed from the case after the judge ruled that he could not be linked to the shelter’s disposal.

Besides the lawsuit against the shelter companies and the Weavers’ individual case, two Thorp campers who were trapped with the firefighters won a $400,000 settlement from the Forest Service in 2007.

Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer were camping on a dead-end road above the fire scene when the blaze erupted. They said incident commander Ellreese Daniels made no arrangements to protect them as the crew waited, hoping that the flames would pass them by.

The Hagemeyers dived into the shelter of firefighter Rebecca Welch, who was later lauded as a hero for helping save them. The shelters are only designed for a single occupant.

Daniels was the only one who faced criminal prosecution connected to Thirtymile.

He was given 90 days on work release and ordered to serve three years’ probation after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators about his actions before the deaths.

He was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter, although the judge suggested at sentencing that Daniels was not directly responsible for the deaths.

Investigations by the Forest Service and the Yakima Herald-Republic found that a series of firefighting rules were broken at Thirtymile.

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