Prosecutor: Ellreese Daniels lied to save his career

Ellreese Daniels is going to be sentenced Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the U.S. District Court in Spokane.

From the Wenatchee World:

By K.C. Mehaffey
World staff writer
SPOKANE — After dropping manslaughter charges against the crew boss of four firefighters who died in the Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop, a federal prosecutor has assigned a motive to why Ellreese Daniels lied to investigators after the fatal 2001 wildfire.

Daniels, 47, of Lake Wenatchee, wanted to save his firefighting career, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins.

A former co-worker, however, says Daniels is not at all calculating, and would not have been thinking about his career when investigators interviewed him just after the fire. His defense attorney, Tina Hunt, filed a response Friday to Hopkins’ charge, saying Daniels believed he was telling the truth when investigators questioned him.

Daniels is the first Forest Service employee to be charged for the deaths of firefighters who died under his command, but the involuntary manslaughter charges were dropped in April when he pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to investigators. He will be sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane.

Killed were Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all from Yakima; and Tom Craven, 30, from Ellensburg.

The four were trapped on the Chewuch Road north of Winthrop with 10 other firefighters and two campers when fire swept over them on July 10, 2001. All deployed fire shelters, but the four firefighters were up on a rock slope where they could not properly deploy their shelters.

Daniels pleaded guilty to lying about two things: First, that he told the firefighters who died at least three times to come down from the rocks because it was not a good place to be. And second, that neither of two fire engines reported to him when they arrived at the fire.

Hunt wrote that Daniels has already suffered the consequences for his actions, and should serve no jail time. He is no longer qualified to fight fires, was removed from the fire division with the Forest Service, and was reassigned to the supply cache, her response stated.

Hopkins said he’ll seek a four-month sentence in the custody of the federal Department of Corrections with one year of probation.

He said he believes Daniels should serve in the upper half of the standard range for the misdemeanor charge, which is zero to six months for someone with a low criminal history, such as Daniels. One prior conviction, for assault, counts against Daniels under sentencing guidelines, according to documents provided by the prosecution.

Hopkins said Daniels appeared to lie about all the key turning points that would have shown his poor decisions leading to the firefighters’ deaths.

“Mr. Daniels lied to investigators for the purpose of shifting responsibility for the deaths of the four firefighters to others, to include the victims, in an effort to save his career,” his court document states. It later adds that deployment of fire shelters triggers an automatic investigation, and, “In a profession where success, courage, and image are important, Mr. Daniels wanted to avoid an unnecessary deployment that could hurt his standing among his peers and reduce his prospects for choice assignments and promotion.”

He also wrote that Daniels has only made excuses for his poor performance as an incident commander, but has not recognized that his false information led investigators to false conclusions and wasted government resources.

The false statements exposed an engine foreman to potential disciplinary action, and caused families of the firefighters unnecessary anxiety and anguish, Hopkins wrote.

Heather Murphy, who used to work with Daniels at the Wenatchee River Ranger District, said it’s doubtful that Daniels was thinking about his career when he was trying to assess whether the fire would sweep over his crew.

“It’s ridiculous. With all the years of service, it’s not like he was a ladder-climbing person at all,” she said. Murphy said it makes no sense for anyone assessing a fire to think about what their peers would think if they had to deploy fire shelters.

“I wasn’t there, so it’s really hard for me to respond, but I’ve been on enough fires — around 40 or 50 — to know that you often don’t think you’re going to be overtaken by fire,” she said.

Attorney Tina Hunt, in her response to the prosecutor’s court filing, wrote that Daniels simply forgot the engine supervisor had checked in with him during the fire, and had to be taken back to the site to recall it. She also wrote that while Daniels may not have ordered firefighters to come down from the rocks, others recalled him stating that the road was the place to be, and that he believed he communicated his desire for them to come down from the rocks.

She also wrote that Daniels continues to have nightmares about the incident, and likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Mr. Daniels knows that his actions, in part, led to these tragedies. However, he has also had to deal with the fact that NO OTHER PERSON has been forced to be held criminally responsible other than himself,” her response states.

Memorial service in Medford; more information

A memorial service was held in Medford, Oregon yesterday for the 9 firefighters that died in the helicopter crash on August 5 while working on the Iron 44 fire.

HERE is a gallery of photos taken at the service. You need to see these photos.

Here is a link to a slide show/video of the service, put together by Shari and Ken Downhill of Northwest Timber Fallers.

The Mail Tribune has a video about the service.

An excerpt from a Mail Tribune article:

Friday’s tribute began with a procession of some 30 fire trucks representing firefighting companies and agencies from around the West. Leading the procession was seven black vehicles carrying family members.

Grayback firefighters lined each side of the road as the procession entered the fairgrounds under crossed fire ladders. The Grayback crews, all in gray company T-shirts, forest green Nomax pants and boots, then marched solemnly into the amphitheater for the memorial. Most were young men but there was also a sprinkling of young women.

With the families of the fallen sitting up front, the memorial opened with a police honor guard and a bagpipe-and-drum corps. Later, just as the Northwest Regional Fire Pipes and Drums was completing “Amazing Grace,” a spotter plane followed by an air tanker roared overhead to honor those killed in the crash. Another air tanker followed, symbolically dropping nine streamers traditionally used to determine wind direction over a fire.

Surviving members of the Grayback crew, including Schroeder, who is wearing a chin brace, presented the families of those who died with American flags, chromed Pulaskis — a combined ax and hoe that is the favored tool of wildland firefighters — and polished red hard hats for the firefighters. The families of the pilots received shiny white flight helmets.

Closing out the ceremony was a Grayback firefighter who rang the fire bell 15 times in a series of five rings each, a historical way of letting other firefighters know one of their own has fallen.

In addition to Catherine Renno, others speaking at the memorial included U.S. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, State Forester Marvin Brown, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Grayback President Mike Wheelock, Carson Executive Vice President Steve Metheny and Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski was in attendance.

“It is an unhappy truth that firefighters’ memorial services are always about the passing of the very best men and women our society can produce,” Metheny said. “And these men are proof of that truth.”

Many in the crowd began weeping when former smoke jumper Wheelock spoke.

“To the families, I am so sorry we did not bring your loved ones home,” he said, his voice breaking. “Families and firefighters, we will never, never forget the firefighters that were injured or lost their lives on Iron 44.”

During her presentation, Renno, whose husband, Bruce LeMay, offered a prayer for those killed or injured in the crash as well as others who have died in service to fellow citizens or the nation, said they have had some tough days since the crash.

“It was a comfort to my heart to learn, by talking to some of the guys that made it, that they weren’t tired and worn out as they got onto the helicopter,” she said. “They were pretty jazzed. They were pretty happy because they had held the line. That does our hearts good to know that, that our sons on their last day held the line.”

Photo courtesy of Mail Tribune

Wildfire news, August 16, 2008

Record heat in the Northwest

Some areas in the northwest are experiencing record heat which will continue through today. Temperatures across Oregon are expected to exceed 100 degrees and a red flag warning has been in effect for the Cascades since Thursday but will expire this morning.

Hay truck drives through fire, ignites

A man driving a truck with baled straw drove through an area on Interstate 5 in Oregon where firefighters were battling a wildland fire along the highway. He thought it was safe to pass, since cars were driving through. But farther down the road he felt heat through the cab, looked in his mirror and saw flames. His load of straw was on fire.

He stopped and jumped out of the truck, expecting an explosion, probably having seen too many movies when the burning vehicle ALWAYS explodes. It didn’t, but he stood on the road and watched his truck burn to the ground.

Man charged with arson at National Forest trailheads

A man charged with a string of vehicle arsons in 2007 at two different Bitterroot trailheads was charged in Ravalli County Justice Court, Thursday.

Donnie Mack Sellars, 54, was charged with five counts of felony vehicle arson.

The case stems from a rash of trailhead arsons on the Bitterroot National Forest (in western Montana) on March 25, 2007. On that day, two vehicles were torched at the Big Creek trailhead and three others, including a horse trailer, went up in flames at the Bass Creek trailhead.

Witnesses told officials of seeing Seller’s older brown minivan at the scene of one arson shortly before the fires erupted, according to a court affidavit.

One witness said he spoke to Sellars at the Bass Creek trailhead after seeing vehicles on fire, the affidavit said. Sellars was sitting in his vehicle, which was parked next to a Nissan Pathfinder with a broken passenger side window, the records said. Sellars allegedly told the man he was calling 911 on his cell phone, but appeared confused about his location. Sellars handed the phone to the man, who told the dispatcher about the fires, the affidavit said.

When the man handed the phone back to Sellars, the witness said the Nissan Pathfinder erupted in flames, starting around the area of the window. Sellars immediately left the area in his minivan and the man wrote down the vehicle’s license plate number, the affidavit said. Sellars was arrested by a Ravalli County Sheriff’s deputy that same day heading toward the Bear Creek Trailhead parking area.

Pieces of what appeared to be shattered automobile glass were discovered in Sellars’ boots, the affidavit said. Inside his vehicle, officers found about 20 full, partially full or empty beer cans, as well as a hammer with what appeared to be embedded fragments of glass in its rubber handle, matches and cigarette lighters, crumpled newspaper and an empty kerosene container, according to the affidavit.

Sellars was previously convicted on arson charges in 1979 and 1998, when he set fire to a wood frame home in Tacoma, Wash., and for lighting a fire to his own house in Amarillo, Texas, the affidavit said. A felony charge of driving under the influence in November was filed after Sellars was found not competent to assist in his own defense, following two stays at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

Courtesy of the Ravalli Republic

Wildfire news, August 15, 2008

Training to resume at bombing range in NJ

The New Jersey Air National Guard will resume some training in October at a bombing range that was the source of a 17,000 acre fire on May 15, 2007. Here is what we wrote about the fire on January 10, 2008:

On May 15, 2007, a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 ejected a flare during a low-level pass on a training flight, starting a fire which grew to 17,000 acres. The fire destroyed four homes in two senior citizen housing developments, and damaged 37 others. Some 6,000 people were evacuated. Ocean County agencies will receive $320,000 from the Air Force as reimbursements for their costs during the fire. The Air Force has already paid nearly $2 million in private property claims and other losses, but many claims are still unsettled. 

USFA Releases Firefighter Fatalities Report

The United States Fire Administration released “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2007,” an annual report of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the United States. There were 118 on-duty deaths in 2007 in the United States.

Of the 118 firefighters that died while on duty in 2007:

  • 68 volunteer firefighters and 50 career firefighters died while on duty.
  • There were seven firefighter fatality incidents where two or more firefighters were killed, claiming a total of 21 firefighters’ lives.
  • 11 firefighters were killed during activities involving brush, grass or wildland fires, the lowest in over a decade.
  • Activities related to emergency incidents resulted in the deaths of 76 firefighters.
  • 38 firefighters died while engaging in activities at the scene of a fire.
  • 26 firefighters died while responding to or returning from emergency incidents.
  • 11 firefighters died while they were engaged in training activities.
  • 15 firefighters died after the conclusion of their on-duty activity.
  • Heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death for 2007, with 52 firefighter deaths.

The full report can be downloaded at


Li’l Smokey to be on CBS News

The bear cub that was rescued by CalFire firefighter Adam Deem on the Moon fire on July 17 will be featured on the CBS Evening News on Monday. The piece was scheduled to air yesterday, but got bumped due to breaking news stories. HERE is a link to a blog about the bear.

Photo courtesy of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care