Followup on Montana Representative’s lawsuit against Billings Fire Department

On July 5 Wildfire Today told you about Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg’s lawsuit against the Billings Fire Department over the loss of trees and ground cover on his property during an 1,100-acre fire in 2008. On Tuesday Representative Rehberg issued a statement that sounds like he is trying to diffuse criticism over his decision to sue the city. He is up for re-election and may be getting nervous about how this may affect his chances in the November election.

Here is Rehberg’s statement, taken from his U. S. Government web site:

It’s unfortunate that some folks are mischaracterizing this situation for political gain. The appreciation I expressed to the front-line firefighters back in 2008 is the same appreciation I feel today. Jan and I have the deepest respect for firefighters and the dangerous work they do here in Billings. We continue to be very thankful for their bravery and skill.

It appears that Representative Rehberg “appreciates” and “respects” the firefighters so much that he has filed a lawsuit against the fire department, hoping to put some cash in his pocket.

The news release also has a statement from his attorney that said during the fire there was a “withdrawal of firefighters from an existing fire scene during high temperature and high wind conditions”, and firefighters “carelessly abandoned the scene of a fire that it had not adequately suppressed during hot and windy conditions”. They infer that this led to additional acres being burned on Rehberg’s property.

An article in the Billings Gazette said the City plans to contest the lawsuit, rather than pay Representative Rehberg a cash settlement. Here is an excerpt:

According to the complaint, the manager of Rehberg Ranch LLC was told by the Fire Department that firefighters would be present at the fire scene on July 4 to control any flare-ups brought on by the hot and dry weather conditions.

Instead, personnel left the scene before noon and the fire re-ignited, escalating to an “out-of-control blaze before the Billings Fire Department could return,” the complaint alleges.

The resulting wildfire was reported to the north of Rehberg Ranch and forced the evacuation of about 40 homes within a 1.5-mile radius of Night Hawk Road and Lone Eagle Drive, according to Gazette records.

Volek said Fire Department personnel were working overtime to deal with multiple fires in that area and elsewhere that were stoked by dangerous weather conditions.

“This was on July the Fourth in a very hot time,” Volek said. “The temperatures were around 100 that day and we also had other fires and fireworks going on at that time. The city was fully occupied.”

Rehberg’s opponent in the November election, Dennis McDonald, said in a press release:

Homes were saved, lives saved, and trees and grasslands were protected. These heroes deserve a huge ‘thank you,’ not a Rehberg lawsuit.

UPDATE @ 8:34 a.m. July 7

We searched the archives at the Billings Gazette found more information about the fire.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 – A fire burned eight to ten acres near the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision.

Billings Fire Department Battalion Chief Boyd Vopel said the fire was difficult to fight because of rough terrain that includes steep slopes and coulees, as well as some areas that could not be reached even with off-road vehicles.

“But we’ve got a line around it and it’s confined right now,” he said at about 10:30 p.m. “But it’s not out yet by any stretch of the imagination.”

Rehberg fire
A smoke column can be seen north of the Rehberg Ranch Friday afternoon, July 4, 2008. DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette Staff

Friday, July 4, 2008 – A fire that eventually burned about 1,120 acres was reported at 1:45 p.m.

The fire flared up near the site of another blaze that burned 10 acres Wednesday and Thursday, but officials did not know if Friday’s fire was a rekindling of that one or a new one.

Sunday, July 6, 2008 – A follow-up story included this:

The fire is believed to have been sparked by lightning on Tuesday. The fire burned about an acre before firefighters brought it under control. It blew up again on Wednesday and burned about 18 acres before firefighters knocked it down Thursday morning. A Friday afternoon windstorm caused it to blow up again, said Billings Battalion Chief Terry Larson.

“It’s a particularly troublesome fire just because of the difficult terrain it’s burning in,” he added.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Followup on Montana Representative’s lawsuit against Billings Fire Department”

  1. Seems the rep. has some explaining to do for his comment, as well as actions and inactions in properly preparing his private property for wildfire.

    It’s one thing to question an Agencies policies, but it’s entirely different to attack the decisions of firefighting experts… Forestry Technicians or Wildland Firefighters.

  2. Maybe Congressman Rehberg’s wife should be held responsible for not managing the land properly. Her negligence caused the fire to extend to 1,120 acres. In California we call it “Defendable Space”. Can the City of Billings obtain suppression cost based on that negligence? The Land Manager did not “Manage the land” causing the fire damage.
    That is how I see it.
    R. Fritch


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