Tuesday the Montana Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision in a lawsuit filed by a rancher whose land burned in the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000. In 2012 a jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the fire. The Weavers claimed firefighters’ burouts caused them to lose valuable timber and grass in their pastures. The fire burned 17,000 acres near the Clark Fork River along Interstate 90.
The heart of the Weavers’ case was their contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch.
The State of Montana argued that a legal principle known as the “public duty doctrine” prohibited the recovery of damages for government efforts to contain and suppress a wildland fire. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the State had not raised the issue in time and declined to consider the argument. The Court determined that the State had not given adequate notice to the landowners that it would be relying on that legal theory. Because the issue was not raised until three weeks before trial, the District Court was within its discretion in ruling that the plaintiffs did not have adequate time to respond.
The Court also rejected the State’s arguments that the plaintiffs had failed to present adequate expert testimony at trial and that the trial court should have moved the trial to a different county.
In 2012 we wrote an analysis of the case: “Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana”.