Rancher wins suit, says backfires ruined his land


GavelA Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana on Wednesday. A jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000 — $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance was for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire. About 900 acres of the Weaver’s land burned during the fire.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Missoulian:

…“I hope it will make the state think twice about these operations,” attorney Quentin Rhoades said after the Granite County jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday. Rhoades represented Fred and Joan Weaver and their daughter, Vickie Weaver.

Although the state was the defendant, much of the fire crew came from Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast under a federal interagency management team. Rhoades said the evidence indicated the crew appeared unaccustomed to working in windy mountainous terrain.


Witnesses at the scene reported firefighters setting “backfires,” where one blaze is used to divert or control another. They are different from “burnouts,” where firefighters ignite the green foliage between their defensive fire line and the flame front to deprive a forest fire of fuel.


“The state said we saved structures, the power line, the highway and the railroad with backfires,” Rhoades said. “Our argument was it would have been a lot easier to save that stuff if you hadn’t gone around lighting fires everywhere. They said they had plans to light fires eight or nine days in row, but that was the documentation that was missing. The jurors found that particularly troubling.”


“I believe this outcome is unprecedented in Montana history,” Rhoades said. “I don’t think there’s been a verdict against the state for negligent forest firefighting. There haven’t been many verdicts on that anywhere.”

This could be worrisome for wildland firefighters, if they have to be thinking that a jury of people off the street may second-guess their tactics in a trial 12 years down the road. It makes a person wonder to what extent these jurors were educated during the trial about wildland fire behavior, the advantages and disadvantages of employing different tactics, and the reality of fighting fire during a major fire bust when firefighting resources are spread very thin, as they were in 2000 when this fire was burning.

The way the Missoulian article is written seems to imply that the difference between a backfire and burn out is significant. It may or may not have made a difference in the trial, but the definition of a backfire in the article does not agree with that listed in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.

Backfire: A fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire or change the direction of force of the fire’s convection column.”

Burning out: Setting fire inside a control line to consume fuel located between the edge of the fire and the control line.”

UPDATE on April 21, 2012: Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana
Thanks go out to Dick

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. Google+

13 thoughts on “Rancher wins suit, says backfires ruined his land”

  1. The jury was well educated on the difference between “burning out” and “backfiring.” Burning out is done under supervision of a crew boss or DIVS. Backfire is as strategy associated with indirect attack. Except for rare cases meeting specific criteria, backfiring is executed at a command level. (Source: NWCG Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.) We had 7 days of thorough testimony from a variety of Type I overhead. Firefighters SHOULD think twice when screwing around with drip torches in windy, hot, dry and dangerous conditions — as the jury correctly found.

    1. What’s missing from your comment is whether or not those burnouts were approved by the IC as is customary? Was OPS setting up these plans with the FBAN? Obviously there is a lot more detail missing that we dont have at this point. Is there somewhere where we can read the trail transcripts?
      I do believe that this is another case to justify supporting local IMT’s that are familiar with Fuels and Terrain not just making Type 1 & 2 teams national without any local folks at the helm.

      1. All firing operations were planned by OPS1 Day, OPS1 Night and Planning OPS, and the IC approved every single one. They had FBAN’s fire behavior forecasts in hand, and in planning meetings, as well. But they had no idea where the fire was. Believe it or not, on the first three days of the fire, the fire perimeter map was off by nearly 3 sections. They had a local State guy attending the morning briefings and rubber stamping everything, but he admitted at trial he was so inexperienced it was fair to call his participation OJT. And we are not talking burnouts. We’re talking backfiring operations. Check out “backfiring” under NWCG Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.

  2. So did these tactics stop the spread of the fire and save structures and more acres from burning? Now firefighters can’t use backfire, can’t use retardant, can’t use dozers, etc. I hope folks are happy when all they can do is standbye and watch our homes, woods, ranches, and towns burn down. Way to go Quentin!

  3. The Type I Team on the Ryan Gulch Fire burned 12 square miles of land. But for the Grace of God, they also would have killed 3 fire fighters with their “strategic use of fire” combined with their stupid indirect line building techniques. I stood on the spot, on the ridgetop, with one of those who nearly died. We could see right down to the Clark Fork from where they were about to be burned over. They would have all three died if a Type I helicopter had not been already operating spot within a mile of the blow-up. It dropped load after 2000 gallon load from the river right on top on them or they’d be dead as they hurried their dozers down 40 and 50% slopes. Not to mention the 9,000 extra acres of land that burned. Say what you want. It was plain stupid, and the State got the justice it deserved. People who refuse to respect the power they face in fighting wildfire should find another line of work. If you knew the facts like I do, your comments would be very different. In fact, the State’s own expert testimony (Chuck Stanich Lolo FMO, retired; and Shelly Crook, a Type 1 FBAN) supported our case, in then end, as much as our own, Dick Mangan. Here’s the lesson: BE CAREFUL, DAMMIT!

  4. This whole case speaks VOLUMES for the “real needs” of RX burns in dry years

    Now I may be a lowly forestry degreed layman at the present to you folks. I am the guy that defends pretty much all things aviation……

    This year with the Lower Fork fire in CO and this case proves anumber of things to a NON lawyer….

    The folks in the land management agencies who claim “goals” and TRY to mimic nature and say they are doing this for the good of the land(s) ……..I say great!!

    BUT when things go awry and according to plan and your plans are missing documentation when going to court……weeeeellllllll you see what will happen, I do not wonder why ranchers and the general public get the way they do about these things.

    Time for the land management agencies to get assessed through the court systems for losses they create. Why do you suppose there are sooooo many lawsuits against aviation and pilots? The Iron 44 incident OUGHT to make people think.

    It also behooves the rest of the agencies when you have one of your own SJ’s becoming lawyers….probably because of pay and career decision issues and selection…you might want to sit up and pay attention.

    All of these RX burns that cause of property and life that can be put off til other days cries the need for REAL licensing just like us pilots. Every 2 yrs we need a Flight Review for any flying liscense held..it’s non punitive but you know what? the CFI or examer does not have to sign you off til one demonstrates the necessary competency.

    YEP just like NWCG taskbooks but we the pilot still pays for EACH iteration. The airlines and others pay for the recurrency. Now apply this to todays current day issues…. put a page in the taskbook ENTIRELY on the use of technology such as weathertap, NOAA, NWS. etc. the page should also require 24 -32 hours EACH AND EVERY YEAR a fire wether class

    WHY? Because this case and the 2012 Co Lower Fork fire indiicates to me …..Goals are more important than common sense. Just because an agency writes a burn plan DOES NOT mean they are professional meteorologists. But the agencies will tell us otherwise.

    Hell, watching the WX in CO in late Mar…. I could ID a Red Flag Warning day AND looked the isobars on a WX map and estimated the upcoming wind events and maybe even put a hold omn that 35 beauty.

    So what if ranchers get better educated? I am all for it and we as land managers better well know there are more of these RX fires headed to court and it ain’t “gonna” be prety anymore when the GP can assess RX fire issues as well or better than we can on their “back 40!”

    But this a degreed forester, commercial pilot, aircraft mechanic’s simplistic view of things

    Courts are going to be full in the next few years for events like these….doesn’t matter if it takes 12 years.
    Common sense isn’t so common anymore, and I know that the land management will keep defending their burn plans right to the death. But in the end, I would imagine more ranchers and land owners are going to be bringing these to court. The land management agencies should get into the insurance biz….just loooookeee at the money to be made, huh?

  5. Quoting Bryan, “do believe that this is another case to justify supporting local IMT’s that are familiar with Fuels and Terrain not just making Type 1 & 2 teams national without any local folks at the helm.”

    Maybe overhead should be carded for a region. An IC cardedfor Florida wouldnt be qualified to takeIC in the Nothern Rockies or California without comp0lting a task book for that region?

  6. Weren’t SE IMT’s in West TX last year butting heads with the locals too? This exposes a more systemic issue for IMT’s and how they operate. Bill’s suggestions in the article posted today April 21 are for “Firefighters” but I read “IMTs” and they could be applied directly how IMT’s operate.

  7. Some careful review needs to be done before it can be determined if this is either 1) a systematic problem of out-of-area IMTs being unfamiliar with local conditions and fuels, or 2) just a case of an IMT f@&$ing up and performing poorly, or 3) a case of an IMT’s acceptable performance being misunderstood and/or misinterpreted by a jury.

    Let the debate begin.

    1. Excellent point, Bob. For those of us who were not on the Ryan Gulch fire or in the court room, it is difficult to choose between the three options. And, we may never know for sure. The Plaintiff’s attorney was very generous in offering their view; I will try to obtain the State’s side of the story as well. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Under the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity a local, state, or the federal government should be protected from even civil prosecution.  This could indeed be a precedent setting case and if upheld could have significant ramifications.   I suppose the issue at hand for this court was the degree of negligence or possibly the level of experience and training which the crews had.  Like the court decision resulting from the Thirty Mile Fire this potentially precedent setting case could make our job a bit more difficult.

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