Fire Bosses Face Personal, Legal Liability

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – Those most qualified to manage large fires are turning down assignments after a fire commander was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the deaths of four people under his command, a survey shows.

Ellreese Daniels was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and other felonies in 2006, five years after the Thirtymile fire. In late April, Daniels, 47, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of making false statements to investigators.

The International Association of Wildland Fire said the fallout of that case “may result in fewer highly qualified firefighters taking leadership roles on fire and a more conservative and less aggressive approach to suppressing wildfires” by those who remain willing to take leadership jobs.”

An association survey found that, because of the criminal charges against Daniels, 36 percent of the members will make themselves “less available for fire assignments” and 23 percent would refuse the job of incident commander.

“The end result could be more acres burned, more homes and other structures destroyed and greater fire suppression costs to taxpayers,” the association concluded.

Fire boss Dick Mangan of Missoula said he turned down five offers of a safety-officer position on large fires last summer.

“When guys like me are deciding to stay home…” Mangan said.

Firefighting is dangerous work and safety officers have to make decisions in a hurry, Mangan said.

“I have a decision space of maybe seconds or minutes, and I have incomplete information to work with,” Mangan said. “You have to ask yourself, why subject yourself to the liability?”

Another veteran firefighter, Steve Frye, who has served as an incident commander for elite Type I teams, said: “Having the threat of personal liability out there has definitely occupied a substantial amount of time for incident commanders and agencies.”

Steven Pyne— an Arizona State University professor, former National Park Service firefighter and fire historian — said most of the modern problems with wildfire are solvable, if the political and public desire is strong enough.

Some fires should be allowed to burn, homes in the wildland-urban interface can be made nearly fireproof with modern building materials and good planning and laws could be passed to protect firefighters from liability as long as they are doing their best and following the rules.

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