Ellreese Daniels pleads guilty to two misdemeanors

At the federal district court today in Spokane, Washington, Ellreese Daniels plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of making false statements to investigators. The federal prosecutors dropped the four federal felony charges of involuntary manslaughter related to the deaths of the four firefighters on the Thirtymile fire near Winthrop, Washington in 2001.

In addition to the four involuntary manslaughter charges, Daniels had been charged with seven counts of making false statements to investigators, a federal misdemeanor.

Daniels could have faced as much as six years in prison for each of the four manslaughter charges. Now he faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for each of the two remaining misdemeanors, although the standard range is much less.

Sentencing was set for July 23 August 18. Yesterday in an email, Daniels’ attorney, Tina Hunt, said she expected there to be a “contested sentencing hearing”.

I have mixed feelings about the plea agreement. The procedure today means that Daniels will not have to serve lengthy jail time for the felony charges, he will not have a felony conviction on his record, he probably will not lose his job with the US Forest Service, and he will not lose his retirement.

His attorney said that the defense had a strong case. This is also indicated by the fact that the federal prosecutors dropped all of the felony charges and five of the seven misdemeanor charges in return for the guilty pleas on the two misdemeanors.

If I had been in Daniels’ shoes, I may have done the same thing. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be facing those four felony charges, serious prison time, and the loss of the job and his retirement.

Looking at the larger picture, and from a selfish perspective, this is a mixed blessing for the fire community. It would have been better for firefighters if all of the charges had been dropped, or if they had been thrown out or defeated in court.

But perhaps the next over-zealous prosecutor seeking to to beef up their resume will be less inclined to throw around ridiculous felony charges when someone makes an honest mistake on a fire.

The International Association of Wildland Fire documented with their survey the fact that many firefighters were very concerned about the harmful effects these charges would have on the fire community. In the survey, 36% said they would make themselves less available for fire assignments because of the charges that were filed against Daniels.

Making an honest mistake on a fire should not have the potential to ruin your life and the life of your family.

Photo of Ellreese Daniels courtesy of the Spokesman-Review

Santa Anita fire at Sierra Madre, California; update and map

Update: Tuesday, April 29, 9:37 AM MT
As of this morning the fire is 538 acres and is 57% contained. Most of the contained fireline is in the eastern areas near the Sierra Madre residences. Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team 3 assumed command of the fire at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Approximately 150 homes and 400 people remain evacuated.

Live video from a news helicopter this morning showed no visible smoke, but this was from several thousand feet above the fire.

Monday, April 28
Today the Santa Anita fire near Sierra Madre, California, made some upslope runs and also spread to the southwest. As of 8:00 PM today (Monday) it was 538 acres and 21% contained.

The evacuation boundary now extends west to Michillinda Avenue in Sierra Madre. The southern boundary of the current evacuation zone from west to east, is Fairview Avenue to Grove, north along Grove to Carter Avenue, east along Carter Avenue to Baldwin Avenue.

As of 8:00 p.m. Monday April 28, evacuations will be lifted for homes east of Baldwin Avenue.

Click on the map to see a larger version.

Map of the Santa Anita fire near Sierra Madre, produced by the incident at 3:00 PM local time, April 28, 2008.

The LA Times has a map of neighborhoods that have been evacuated.

Map and details about the fire from Inciweb. Photo from Pasadena Star News.

Rocket war in Greece

This is one of the craziest things I have ever seen. To celebrate Easter, two churches in Vrontados, Chios, Greece, shoot thousands of home made rockets at each other. This 1 min. 23 sec. video from Easter 2007 is worth viewing, if you’ve never seen a friendly rocket war involving 50,000 rockets made in people’s basements.

(Update: the original video on YouTube was removed by the user, but here is another one.)

Ellreese Daniels' plea hearing April 29

An email message from Tina Hunt, Ellreese’s attorney dated today, April 28:

Hi All,

As some of you know, I believe we have finally reached a compromise with the government in this case. In exchange for dismissing all 11 felony counts, the government will agree to offer a plea to 2 misdemeanor counts of making a false statement in an official writing. I will be recommending to the court that Ellreese should receive no time, the government may recommend a sentence of jail time. I strongly feel that this is a case that does not merit a jail sentence, so I am comfortable with the plea to the misdemeanors.

As you all know, this is a case which I have felt very passionately about. I am more convinced than ever of Ellreese’s innocence on ALL of the counts, however, there remains a risk that if we proceed to trial, he could be found guilty of at least one felony. There comes a time and place to put some closure on this matter, and Ellreese is comfortable with this resolution. I hope that the witnesses and families may also find some peace now.

I anticipate that we will still have a contested sentencing hearing in late summer.

We currently have a tentative change of plea set for tomorrow (April 29) at 11:00 a.m. in Spokane before Judge Van Sickle. The address of the courthouse is: 920 W. Riverside Avenue, Spokane, WA. It is open to the public, and I’m sure that if you can be present, Ellreese and I would appreciate it greatly.


We covered this earlier, here.

How the media covers wildland fires

The media usually has a tough time reporting on wildland fires. Unlike a structure fire confined to a relatively small geographic area, a vegetation fire can be spread out over many square miles. It can be difficult for even the Incident Commander to maintain situational awareness.

Pity the poor, inexperienced cub reporter who arrives at a rapidly expanding urban interface fire and is expected to size up the whole incident within minutes, usually from standing in one spot at a distance from the fire.

It can take years for a professional firefighter to learn the jargon. We still have reporters calling air tankers “Borate bombers”. Borate has not been used in air tankers since it was briefly tested on fires in southern California in 1956 and found to be a soil sterilant.

Today I was amused at two examples of how the media covers wildland firefighting.

1. A news anchor on CNN was talking live via satellite with a reporter at the Santa Anita fire in southern California. In asking her a question about the 490-acre urban interface fire, the anchor said:

“…. I know these things have a tendency to spread….. “

Well thanks, CNN, for the fire behavior lesson. Glaciers have a “tendency to spread”.

2. In today’s edition of the Rapid City Journal the newspaper had a front page story about volunteer fire departments. The story included three pictures on the front page of volunteers engaged in wildland fire training. (It must have been a slow news day in the Black Hills.) The captions of two of the pictures had these phrases:

“Crews practiced digging and clearing forest ground cover to create breaks where hoses can be run.”


“…a volunteer firefighter in Johnson Siding works with a ground crew practicing clearing forest ground cover to make a path for hoses.”

Well…..rarely do firefighters have to cut a path in order to put in a hose lay. I have only had to do it a few times in extremely dense chaparral. If you can crawl through the vegetation, you can put in a hose lay. Often a hose lay or a “wet line” is put in instead of constructing or digging a hand line.

In the grand scheme of things, these little errors in the newspaper don’t make a lot of difference to the average reader, but to the knowledgeable, it would make you wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the article.

In some areas of the country wildland fire agencies put on a 1-day training class for reporters who cover fire. It covers topics like, safety for reporters, jargon, where a reporter can go and where they can’t go, a little about fire behavior, descriptions of firefighting resources, fire organization, and sometimes even how to use a fire shelter.

If your agency puts on training like this for reporters, leave a comment with a few details.