A Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana on Wednesday. A jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000 — $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance was for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire. About 900 acres of the Weaver’s land burned during the fire.
Here are some excerpts from an article in the Missoulian:
…“I hope it will make the state think twice about these operations,” attorney Quentin Rhoades said after the Granite County jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday. Rhoades represented Fred and Joan Weaver and their daughter, Vickie Weaver.
Although the state was the defendant, much of the fire crew came from Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast under a federal interagency management team. Rhoades said the evidence indicated the crew appeared unaccustomed to working in windy mountainous terrain.
Witnesses at the scene reported firefighters setting “backfires,” where one blaze is used to divert or control another. They are different from “burnouts,” where firefighters ignite the green foliage between their defensive fire line and the flame front to deprive a forest fire of fuel.
“The state said we saved structures, the power line, the highway and the railroad with backfires,” Rhoades said. “Our argument was it would have been a lot easier to save that stuff if you hadn’t gone around lighting fires everywhere. They said they had plans to light fires eight or nine days in row, but that was the documentation that was missing. The jurors found that particularly troubling.”
“I believe this outcome is unprecedented in Montana history,” Rhoades said. “I don’t think there’s been a verdict against the state for negligent forest firefighting. There haven’t been many verdicts on that anywhere.”
This could be worrisome for wildland firefighters, if they have to be thinking that a jury of people off the street may second-guess their tactics in a trial 12 years down the road. It makes a person wonder to what extent these jurors were educated during the trial about wildland fire behavior, the advantages and disadvantages of employing different tactics, and the reality of fighting fire during a major fire bust when firefighting resources are spread very thin, as they were in 2000 when this fire was burning.
The way the Missoulian article is written seems to imply that the difference between a backfire and burn out is significant. It may or may not have made a difference in the trial, but the definition of a backfire in the article does not agree with that listed in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.
“Backfire: A fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire or change the direction of force of the fire’s convection column.”
“Burning out: Setting fire inside a control line to consume fuel located between the edge of the fire and the control line.”
UPDATE on April 21, 2012: Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana
Thanks go out to Dick