Thursday, December 21, 2006

Prosecution for Firefighter Deaths

A criminal complaint was filed yesterday against Ellreese N. Daniels, the U.S. Forest Service crew boss who was supervising the four firefighters killed in the Thirtymile wildfire in 2001. The complaint charges him with four counts of manslaughter for gross negligence and 5 counts of giving misstatements to investigators. Thirty Mile crew boss charged in 4 fire deaths, Seattle Times, Dec. 21, 2006.

The Times includes the complaint on its website. Including a long affidavit from a special agent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General, it is 70 pages.

(I'm not sure of the relationship between the Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney. Skimming the affidavit, I found that the agent investigated "in concert with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Washington." p. 3 An assistant US attorney is quoted in the newspaper, but the agent is the who signed the complaint.)

Proseuting a Forest Service employee for deaths during a forest fire is very unusual:

Until two years ago, it had never happened before, said Dick Mangan, a retired 30-year Forest Service veteran who heads the International Association of Wildland Fire.

But after the Thirty Mile Fire, a new federal law boosted investigations of forest-fire deaths. And in 2004, federal prosecutors considered criminal charges against a Forest Service supervisor after a fire in Idaho the previous year killed two firefighters. In the end, though, the supervisor struck a deal, agreeing to quit the Forest Service and serve 18 months of federal probation in return for no formal charges being filed, according to press accounts.
The statutes cited in the complaint are 18 U.S.C. 1112 (manslaughter generally), 18 USC 1114 ("protection of officers and employees of the United States"). The law that increased investigations was Pub. L. 107-203 (codified at 7 USC 2270b-2270c), which requires USDA's Inpector General to investigate "each fatality of an officer or employee of the Forest Service that occurs due to wildfire entrapment or burnover" and report to Congress. These investigations are to be independent of Forest Service investigations.

Update (Dec. 28):The International Association International Association of Wildland Fire and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association just issued a joint news release today, saying that the prosecution of the crew leader does not serve the public's need for fire protection. They say that it will have a chilling effect; already firefighters are saying they will not be willing to make split-second decisions in their jobs if it means that they could be prosecuted years later when hindsight indicates that their decisions had bad results.

Photo of site where firefighters were trapped from Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program.


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Have you read Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean?

Mary Whisner said...

No, but I saw "A River Runs Through It," based on another piece of his writing...

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog post. FYI, the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association just issued a joint news release about this situation. It can be found at