David Monington pleads guilty to forging fire training certificates

In a case that Wildfire Today has been following since November 17, 2008, David Monington pleaded guilty last week in a Rapid City, SD federal court to mail fraud for sending wildfire training certificates through the mail with forged signatures of fire training instructors.

The original indictment for Mr. Monington alleged he forged about 20 signatures of South Dakota firefighting officials in an attempt to gain certification from the National Wildfire Suppression Association. The documents included training certificates, position task books, and a performance rating. The documents fraudulently attest to his training and experience as a firefighter.

Mr. Monington was trying to become qualified as Air Tactical Group Supervisor, Strike Team Leader, and Helibase Manager.

“A number of the printed names and signatures of certifying officials were misspelled, while others were followed by incorrect listings of the certifying officials’ titles,” the indictment stated.

The charge to which he pleaded guilty carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, but the plea deal specifies that the prosecutors will recommend five years of probation and $5,000 restitution when Mr. Monington is sentenced on February 1, 2010.

We wrote about this previously on:

It is stunning to think about what could have happened if this douche bag had actually become qualified for the positions of Air Tactical Group Supervisor, Strike Team Leader, and Helibase Manager. They are all positions that require a great deal of experience, skill, and knowledge. They supervise others and manage very technical, specialized fire suppression equipment.

Bad performance or decisions in these positions could put numerous firefighters at risk. The thought of a fraud or imposter directing air tankers, helicopters, and a strike team of engines or hand crews is scary as hell.

I think he should receive some prison time in addition to the plea deal’s probation and $5,000 restitution.

I am very glad that someone caught these forgeries before this asshole got someone killed.

Here is an excerpt from the Semiannual Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General in April, 2009. It has a summary of the case at that time:

Contractor Indicted for Fraud in Connection With Bogus Training Certificates
The OIG initiated a joint investigation in December 2007 with the BLM Office of Law Enforcement and Security regarding fraud allegedly committed by private fire contractor David A. Monington, operating as Midwest Fire Suppression, in Miles City, Montana. Investigators suspected Monington had submitted false documents to BLM fire contractors in connection with his fire suppression training and employment qualifications.

Our investigation revealed 10 forged certificates of training, 9 forged fire position task books, and 1 forged employee performance rating issued in the name of David Monington. Monington used these documents to obtain fire suppression-related employment in supervisory positions for which he was unqualified (e.g., air tactical group supervisor, strike team leader, and helibase manager). If he had been successful, he could have created an unsafe and increasingly hazardous work environment for fellow fire fighters. Several South Dakota and Wyoming state employees, as well as one former U.S. Forest Service employee, stated that their purported signatures recorded on certificates of training and position task books issued in Monington’s name were forgeries.

When interviewed, Monington admitted that 15 of these false documents contained forged signatures, although he denied that he was responsible for the forgeries. Monington asserted that he first learned of the forged documents in December 2006 while employed with the Miles City Fire Department. However, he continued to issue these documents to prospective employers through calendar year 2007. The investigation also revealed that Monington submitted these false documents to the National Wildfire Suppression Association in May 2006 to obtain instructor status, a position he was unqualified to hold and one that he maintained until December 31, 2006.

On November 19, 2008, our findings were presented to the Federal Grand Jury convened in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Grand Jury charged Monington with two counts of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud. He was arrested without incident at his residence on November 24, 2008, and transported to the U. S. District Courthouse in Billings, where he appeared before a U. S. Magistrate and, after processing, was released from federal custody.

UPDATE, Feb. 10, 2010

Yesterday we wrote an update to this story after Monington was sentenced.

Orange County cuts their hand crew

The Orange County Fire Authority, in the news recently because of their reality show The Academy: Orange County Fire about training new firefighters in southern California, is making more news for eliminating their hand crew. After having had a crew for 30 years, the department is facing some monetary shortfalls and has already reduced their proposed 2009-2010 budget by $24 million, which is about 10 percent.

OCFA_logoThey had planned to upgrade their part-time crew which last year cost the OCFA $373,151 to a full-time crew next year, at a cost of $1.7 million, so they could get what OCFA calls “round-the-clock-staffing”.  A 24-hour hand crew is an unusual staffing pattern, to say the least.

In spite of the budget problems, they recently bought $24 million worth of specially-equipped helicopters so they could begin fighting fire with them at night, but disputes internally and with their union have kept them grounded after sunset. And oddly, $24 million is identical to the amount they are having to cut from the 2009-2010 budget.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Orange County Register.

OCFA spent nearly $35,000 to recruit and test potential full-time hand-crew members this year. Job offers were ready to go out in May when the OCFA decided to freeze the positions – part of a department hiring freeze. Qualified candidates remain on a hiring list.

It was an OCFA hand crew’s scraping and cutting away of brush that kept the Freeway Complex fire from racing into Anaheim Hills and Orange Park Acres after it jumped the 91 and ran up the hillsides, said Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters.

The fire service world is a world of specific roles. The engineer drives the engine. The paramedic treats patients. The dispatcher answers emergency calls and sends help. The hand crew has its role: cutting fire lines around the fire. It is a complicated unit, dependent on teamwork and experience to be effective. It is a young man’s job, made up of hours of hard labor.

To make do, OCFA is taking paramedics and engineers out of their engines, handing them shovels and rakes, and teaching them how to be a hand crew. Instead of treating car accident victims and heart attacks, engine crews are cutting brush and picking up used hoses.

Firefighters can do the job of clearing brush, but they are hardly the experts, union and management officials agree, and in many cases are not qualified to safely handle some of the equipment.

“I just don’t think it’s the best use of our resources,” Cruz said. But management decided not to staff a hand crew, and the agency is trying to make it work.

“It’s not a tool we use every day,” Kerr said. “Hand crews are specifically dedicated to the mission of brush clearance. And that is just as important as the mission of our firefighters.”

Some engines carry chainsaws, but many of OCFA’s 800-person firefighting force are not certified to use them. Just 45 out of roughly 800 OCFA firefighters are qualified to use chainsaws to cut down burning trees, with 20 more waiting to be certified.

Additional wildland chainsaw training has been offered to firefighters, but is not required, Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said.

In July, that fact forced OCFA firefighters to wait for two Los Angeles County hand crews to cut down burning eucalyptus trees at a Lake Forest fire. Plans are in the works next year to train an additional 100 firefighters to cut down trees, Cruz said.

Pulling engines from their stations to transform them into makeshift hand crews sets off a complex chain reaction, forcing other engines to cover larger areas. That means potentially longer response times and longer periods of times engines and trucks are unavailable for the next call.

“We still cover the dirt,” Concepcion said.

A "Wildfire Credit Union"?

The Communications Family Credit Union in Michigan felt they needed a name change after three decades because they wanted to appeal to a younger demographic and because some people were confused about who was eligible to become a customer. So they hired the Weber Marketing Group in Seattle to suggest prospective names. The company provided a list of 40 possibilities from which the credit union selected “Wildfire Credit Union”.

I went to their web site, halfway expecting to see a logo, photo, or at least colors derived from a wildfire, but no… just photos of a suburban setting and autumn colors on hardwood trees.   Very boring, to tell you the truth.

I wonder if the average banking customer, when seeing “Wildfire” in the name, thinks of flames, destruction, blackened landscapes, burned structures, and smoke columns, or do they picture a reputable banking institution?

So, would you be more or less likely to become a customer of a credit union called “Wildfire”?

Seattle TV station exposes railroad-caused fires in Washington

At Wildfire Today we have frequently written about wildfires caused by the negligence of railroad companies. For example:

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbo chargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.A cause and origin fire investigator, looking for what started a fire near railroad tracks, can usually find many pieces of carbon along the tracks. To definitively say that a single piece started a particular fire can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.In some parts of the country, including northwest Indiana, railroads have gotten a free ride. They save money by reducing the maintenance on their turbo chargers, start fires, then many times get away with it.

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbo chargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.

A cause and origin fire investigator, looking for what started a fire near railroad tracks, can usually find many pieces of carbon along the tracks. To definitively say that a single piece started a particular fire can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

In some parts of the country, including northwest Indiana, railroads have gotten a free ride. They save money by reducing the maintenance on their turbo chargers, start fires, then many times get away with it.

Yesterday a Seattle television station, KONG, or KING5.com, aired the first portion of a two-part series about wildfires that are caused by railroads. They found that over the last decade 234 fires in the state were attributed to railroads. Houses burned and one person was killed, but no citations or criminal charges were issued. Here is a 5-minute video from that report.


One of the troubling parts of the video is when Joe Shramek, the Resource Protection Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources says they can’t take action against a railroad for starting a fire unless they can prove that:

…the railroad acted deliberately, intentionally, and recklessly.

That is a ridiculously high standard. In most states and on federal land, a deliberately-set fire is one thing, arson, and a fire that is unintentional but results from negligence is treated as a separate violation of the law.  If the State of Washington can’t prosecute someone for negligently allowing a fire to start and/or burn public or private land, they need to amend their law.

The State of Washington is negligent for sitting on their hands while they watch the railroads start fires and in some cases kill people and burn houses.

Here is a second video from KONG that provides more details about why they conducted their investigation.

Here are links to documents provided by KONG:

The second in their series of reports will air Thursday night. We will post that video when it becomes available.

Loop fire, 43 years ago

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.