In a court proceeding today Ellresse Daniels was sentenced to 90 days in a work-release facility and 3 years of probation by judge Fred Van Sickle of the U. S. District Court in Spokane, Washington. He will have to spend his nights locked up for the next 90 days, but can leave to go to work during the day.
Ellreese had been initially charged with four counts of manslaughter after members of his crew, Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver were entrapped and killed on the Thirtymile fire on the Okanogan National Forest in Washington state in 2001. The manslaughter charges were reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Ellreese pleaded guilty.
He faced a maximum of six months in prison for the misdemeanor false statement charges after the plea bargain. The Assistant U.S. Attorney, Tom Hopkins, asked for 4 months and Ellreese’s attorney, Tina Hunt, wanted probation.
The judge said he did not believe that Ellreese was responsible for the deaths of the firefighters, but he was troubled by the false statements.
Members of all four of the deceased firefighters spoke at the proceeding. Karen Fitzpatrick’s mother, Kathie, told the judge Ellreese should serve 2 years in prison. The father of Tom Craven, Will Craven, said the job of firefighting is dangerous and Daniels should not serve any time.
Only time will tell if this sentence will make it more or less likely for other firefighters to face similar criminal charges when the unthinkable happens….. as it inevitably will.
Many firefighters felt that charging a firefighter with crimes for unfortunate injuries or deaths while on the job would open a Pandora’s box of firefighters having to constantly look over their shoulder and second guess every decision or lack of a decision that they may make. Many are wondering if they can afford to take on the addition risk and liability of ruining their families lives if they are accused of making a mistake on a fire.
Firefighters are being advised behind the scenes to “lawyer up” immediately after a major accident. They are collecting information how they can avoid saying anything to investigators, afraid that they may wind up in jail. Learning lessons from accidents may become difficult or impossible.
A survey of 3,362 firefighters conducted last year by the International Association of Wildland Fire showed that 36% of the full-time wildland firefighters surveyed would make themselves less available to be assigned to wildland fires as a direct result of these criminal charges being filed.
I was not on the Thirtymile Fire, so all I know is what I read in the report and from talking with some people very close to the situation.
Ellreese may have made some mistakes on the fire… a fire that exhibited extreme fire behavior. Or maybe days or weeks later he had difficulty remembering every detail of those adrenalin-filled minutes when everything went to hell on the Thirtymile fire. When he learned that four members of his crew were killed by the fire.
He and his crew had been on their shift for 24-36 hours with little or no sleep. He met all of the training and experience qualifications. I have to assume that he did the best that he possibly could with all the tools he had at his disposal. He only wanted the best for his crew.
Any firefighter in a supervisory or leadership capacity, wildland or structural, can make mistakes. If they are subject to felony charges, decades in prison, losing their job, their retirement, and their livelihood, and ruining their lives and the lives of their families, many are not going to accept this additional risk.
Thanks to Dick for the late-breaking news.