Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana

Fall River Forest Fire FlamesOn April 20 Wildfire Today covered the jury verdict following a trial that awarded $730,000 to the owners of a Montana ranch, part of which burned in the Ryan Gulch wildfire in 2000 during a period that saw numerous fires burning across the state. The heart of Fred and Joan Weaver’s case was their contention that firefighters used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch. The jury decided that of the monetary award, $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 was for the rehabilitation of pasture land, and $350,000 was to compensate them for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire.

In the 18 hours since we posted the article, seven comments have been left by our readers, including two from the Weaver’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades. Mr. Rhoades is not your typical barrister. He worked as a wildland firefighter for eight seasons between 1987 and 1994, serving on the Helena Hotshot crew and later as a smokejumper at West Yellowstone and Missoula. He told Wildfire Today that he was in the first planeload of jumpers on the South Canyon fire in Colorado in 1994, the fatal fire on which 14 wildland firefighters were entrapped and killed.

The Ryan Gulch fire was managed by a Type 1 Interagency Incident Management Team from the southeast, the “Red Team”, with Mike Melton as Incident Commander working under a delegation of authority from the state of Montana.

The list of witnesses for the State of Montana included:

  • George Custer, the Type 1 Operations Section Chief on the fire, who recently retired as the Incident Commander of a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team.  (As this is written on April 21, 2012, Mr. Custer is still listed on the NIMO web site as the IC of the Atlanta NIMO team.
  • Three firefighters who work for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — two initial attack firefighters, Mark Nenke and Todd Klemann, and Jonathan Hansen, who according to Mr. Rhoades “was in charge of the Red Team for the State”.
  • Stephen Weaver (no relation to the Plaintiffs), the Planning Operations Section Chief for the Red Team on the fire. Mr. Weaver has been working for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years.
  • Ron Smith, who was a Division Supervisor for the Red Team, presently working as a USFS District Ranger in Mississippi.
  • Shelly Crook, retired from the USFS, served as the State’s expert witness as a Fire Behavior Analyst
  • Chuck Stanich, retired from the USFS, was the State’s Type 1 Incident Commander expert. He is a former Fire Management Officer for the Lolo National Forest and Type 1 Incident Commander.
  • Red Team members who worked on the fire but did not testify included the Incident Commander Mike Melton, retired from the USFS; Tony Wilder, the Night Operations Section Chief; and Keith Wooster, the Fire Behavior Analysist, now retired from the USFS.

The Plaintiffs called one expert witness, Dick Mangan, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Montana in 2000 with more than 30 years of wildfire experience. He is a past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire and currently works as a consultant in wildland fire, instructs fire courses, and raises black angus cattle in Montana.

Mr. Rhoades told us that local firefighting resources from the area staffed some divisions on the fire, and they employed direct tactics, not burning out or backfiring, and never used a drip torch or a fusee for igniting vegetation. He said they offered their local expertise to the Red Team but it was refused. Instead, the Red Team “planned and used all kinds of firing operations from day one”.

According to Mr. Rhoades, the firing operations were approved by the Incident Commander and were planned by the Day and Night Operations Section Chiefs, and the Planning Operations Section Chief, who consulted the fire behavior forecasts prepared by the Fire Behavior Analyst. However, no records could be found in the incident files that any backfires were ever lit or that there were any written planning or oversight documents related to backfires. While 272 pages of Unit Logs were found in the incident records, none of them were completed by Division Supervisors. George Custer, one of the Operations Section Chiefs on the fire, testified that Unit Logs were not necessary for Division Supervisors, but the 1998 Fireline Handbook uses the word “must” when talking about Division Supervisors completing Unit Logs. Members of the Red Team said the Fireline Handbook was “not authoritative”.

Mr. Rhoades got Chuck Stanich, a witness from the State, to admit under cross-examination that from studying the documentation, it was clear that no backfires were ever lit. Mr. Stanich and Mr. Mangan both held the opinion that if backfires were ever lit, they were done without adequate planning, documentation, and oversight. But locals, as well as George Custer, the Operations Section Chief who planned the backfires, testified that backfires were used on the fire. Apparently, the jury was convinced that backfires were used on the fire, but since there were no written records of planning or approval of them in the incident files, then they must have been conducted without adequate planning and oversight.

The jury also heard testimony about two near misses on the fire which were not documented or investigated. One involved two volunteer firefighters, and the other involved a Division Supervisor and two dozer operators. Regarding the second incident, Mr. Rhoades wrote in a comment on Wildfire Today April 20:

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 1 helicopter had not been already operating 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.

These incidents may have helped to create in the minds of the locals serving on the jury that the Incident Management Team from the southeastern United States, where fires burn differently than in the west, was out of their element in Montana.

It may also be difficult to convince a jury pulled in off the street that setting fire to more vegetation can be a successful strategy of wildfire suppression, especially if local volunteer firefighters say they did not use that technique. There could also be an us-versus-them attitude, with rural Montana residents failing to see the benefit of the Federal Government’s fancy-dancy team from the other side of the country coming into their area and doing their own thing without adequately respecting ranchers and the expertise of local firefighters.

What can firefighters and Incident Management Teams learn from this?

  • First, do all the damn paperwork that’s required, especially Unit Logs. It’s not the most fun part of the job, but grow up. You can’t ignore this. Some teams attach a blank Unit Log form to every Incident Action Plan.
  • Document all major decisions, especially those that could be controversial.
  • *Conduct outreach with locals, have town meetings, personally interface with landowners that are directly affected by the fire, use web sites and social media, including but not limited to InciWeb and Twitter, updating them many times a day. Provide updated maps once or twice a day.
  • Talk with local firefighters. Become informed about local weather and fuel conditions, as well as local firefighting tactics that have been successful in the past.
  • Ensure that the final incident paperwork package is complete.
  • Follow-up on near misses. Document and investigate as necessary and required.
  • If the Fireline Handbook, Red Book, or other manual says something must be done, don’t interpret that as a tip, hint, or suggestion.

*Over the last few years, especially in 2011 in the Southwest, I observed that some Type 1 IMTeams really suck at stakeholder outreach and keeping the public informed. During the fatal Lower North Fork fire near Denver in March the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office did a wonderful job before the Type 1 IMTeam assumed command of the fire. They updated their web site numerous times a day, briefed the media on a regular schedule, held briefings for local residents after the media briefings, and used Twitter, providing a great deal of information to their community of very concerned citizens. They did not use InciWeb, but plenty of information was available on their own web site. Organized IMTeams could learn a lot about public information from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.

UPDATE April 23, 2012:

The Ryan Gulch fire was 30 miles west of Missoula and 8 miles east of Drummond, Montana. The trial was held in Philipsburg, MT (map), a town with a population of 930 in 2009.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

21 thoughts on “Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana”

  1. I found this article by accident doing research on what seems to be a similar incident in Oregon going on now. We get quite a few big fires here in Elko County NV where I live and have had numerous IMT’s from all over the country in the last 15 years or so. The team managing the Saddler fire in ’99 was about run out on a rail, mostly due to poor communication with the community. After that local officials set up a Local Liaison program that’s had some pretty good success communicating to the community what’s going on plus It’s been invaluable in communicating to the teams local knowledge. Now Agency officials mandate that a local liaison be tied to the incoming team in the delegation of authority.

    A couple of thoughts I had as I read comments were:

    In my experience, firefighters on the ground are almost always willing to take more risk than their supervisors above them are willing to assign. IMO we should work on mitigating liability along with risk.

    The IMT system is a great tool for managing the complexities of disasters teams face. It fails though when local knowledge is not incorporated in tactics. I worked with a type II team from South Carolina on a fire here in NV. The ops chief said during the inbriefing “I heard the term anchor, flank and pinch, is that how y’all fight fire here?” This may sound like a dumb question but I appreciated it very much, this team did an exellent job of incorporating local tried and true tactics to get the job done.

  2. There are numerous issues and most of them have been addressed by one or more individuals. The fact is when things like this happen firefighters lose. First they become reluctant to employee a useful tool, they become unsure of themselves and their leadership, and worst case they just get out of wildland fire altogether. Many teams have resolved some of the landowner issues with the use of the liaison position. Not the one in the 310-1 who works with demobs and similar task but works in/with the community and works to resolve issues before they become issues. We as firefighters realize that backfires/burn-outs sometimes need to be conducted on short notice due to weather changes etc. etc. but there are proper procedures which need to be followed and proper documentation is part of that procedure. In this day and time litigation has become one of the watch-outs that we often overlook in our attempts to control a fire. At the end of the day we as wildland firefighters hope we have done all we can to protect people,their property, and the affected resources.

  3. Innkeeper Now,
    So this extra risk you expect firefighters to take for private land, how do you explain this too a parent of a dead firefighter. Do you tell them he/she was a hero trying to protect some private timber or even better pasture (that will grow back better than before), or do you tell them that the fire managers didn’t have every tool available because of a fear of lawsuits. I am in Oregon and we constantly butt heads with the state and local agencies that believe in direct attack only. I guess that’s why Oregon department of forestry’s motto is “Protecting Oregon’s forests at ANY cost.

    1. Missing the point gang so here it is in simple terms. The federal fire policy is a land management tool and is not always the most effective, efficient, safest, and cost effective way to control a wild fire. Private land in the western US is burned for no reason other than federal personnel and teams treat it as federal land and apply federal fire policy. It is wrong and needs to be addressed. It has nothing to do with risk, it has to do with policy and expectations of the people who pay our salaries. The Ryan Gulch Fire has placed the spot light on this it seems.

    2. I have worked for ODF for 17 years and at no time have I ever been told that the forest must be protected at ANY cost. That is an ignorant statement.

  4. “It is a high risk job and at times you might have to accept more risk for the public interest.” I diagree…. killing firefighters “for the public interest” is NOT ACCEPTABLE, land is land, people must be most important.

    1. John,

      Excellent response. I don’t think I inferred that we should die on fires. Choosing direct attack over indirect is a common strategy, and sometimes when you own the land it is just easier to burn it than save it. I frankly made a career out of saving private property in all disciplines of fire control and was and should be primary in development of tactics. No where in that process can I find a willingness to hurt fire fighters, it is the job. Your response is exactly why situations like Ryan Gulch happen. Look beyond the emotional response that someone is attacking your outfit or career and have a reasonable debate. Take risk to save property, take great risk to save a life, take no risk to save life or property already lost. If fire figfhters don’t want to do that then lets have civilians do it.

  5. Bill,

    This was a good article you posted, informative interesting and factful, (far better then the standard news reports about most things).

    I see some lessons learned.

    1. Make sure you and others under your command are correctly qualified.

    2. Be aware of what methods you are using and their effect on the area and land ownership.

    3.. Keep good records as in a ICS unit log and make sure you keep a copy. Official records have been known to get lost when they are contray to the agency desires or reflect a bad light on persons or an event. Sometimes they just plain get lost out of carelessness. I also kept a individual note book for each incident in chronical order, (they get stored at home).
    Memories start to get fuzzy or change once a event has occured. 12 years down the line you have a hard time remembering who gave what order on what day, on what fire durying a busy fire season.

    4. Carry liability insurance.

    The plaintiff’s did a smart thing is getting a attorney who had a good fire background to work their case. He skillfully presented the case, the jury made the decision.

  6. I see a series of issues with this incident:

    1. Regradless of how well you prepare, wildfire will sometimes dictate the action and results and if you can’t handle the scrutiny then stay away from it. Don’t blame the lawyers, they have a job to do, and citizens bought it. It is the citizens we work for after all.
    2. Federal IMT’s have a serious flaw at times and that being the assumption that federal fire policy always applies. It does not. At times they are fighting fire on private lands or others not under federal control and federal fire policy no longer applies. It might be prudent and safe to burn significant blocks of federal land to achieve a goal and but it is not always the proper thing to do on land owned by others. It is a high risk job and at times you might have to accept more risk for the public interest.
    3. Burning is not always something that can be planned each and every burning period and subsequent plan. As long as the federal agencies are stuck with the 12 hour operational and planning cycle they will NEVER be up to speed with conditions on the ground during active fire conditions. Back firing is a tool that should be available at any time but should be done with proper communications.
    4. That being said, Hotshot Crews are notorious for lighting fire within their area of responsibility not always in the best conditions. Usually the Division Sup and/or OSC has come from the Shot system and lets them do their thing, or does not have the cajones to tell them no.
    5. With the advent of IMT’s, it was asumed that under ICS we would all be using the same system, and we sort of do. But, it does not take into account local knowledge of burning conditions and is a dismal failure within the wild fire management system. A BC from Chicago can not be expected to fight fires in the unique structures of San Fancisco, west coast fire fighters are not that swift at strategy and tactics in Flrorida. That is not a slight to our fine profession, it is a fact. ICS is a mangement tool, it does not impart any knowledge specific to strategy and tactics, ever.

    I am sure these comments will heat up the converstation, but they are based off observations and experience of this writer, and I stand by them. Sometimes we sell our soul to protect the team but sometimes we need to step back and decide if after the emotion there is merit. In this, there is merit.

    1. Hey Bill,

      I was wondering if an old hotshot like you would care to comment on Innkeeper Now’s assertion that “Hotshot Crews are notorious for lighting fire within their area of responsibility not always in the best conditions. Usually the Division Sup and/or OSC has come from the Shot system and lets them do their thing, or does not have the cajones to tell them no.”

      How about a comment on Innkeeper Now’s statement that “Federal IMT’s have a serious flaw at times and that being the assumption that federal fire policy always applies.”

      I’d be curious to see what you think about “It might be prudent and safe to burn significant blocks of federal land to achieve a goal and(?) but it is not always the proper thing to do on land owned by others.”

      My real favorite is “It is a high risk job and at times you might have to accept more risk for the public interest.”

      I know what I think about these statements made by a person who claims to have “made a career out of saving private property in all disciplines of fire control.” I would be happy to share my thoughts on these statements with you, but I thought you might like the first crack at it.

  7. Hmm.. I’m from outside the “area” and was on a fire near Missoula at about the same general time period. We were the 1st IMT in the greater Missoula area after a 1-2-3 punch depleted local and regional IMTs who timed-out managing “normal fires” before the **** hit the fan.

    We were given the “pick of the litter” of fires.

    Seems there are conflicting versions of “the story”… Go figure…. IT IS CALLED the “fog of war”.

    The lesson IS: Don’t let an attorney (Assistant USA, OGC attorney, private attorney, et al) OVER-RIDE or cloud the facts from folks who were there FIRST-HAND as experts.

    Since “some” of the expert/retired folks (who served as PAID witnesses and experts) were busy protecting their own “assets” at the same time period on other fires.. their “expertise” SHOULD have been questioned.

    IMHO… and not on the Red Team

  8. Hey Tim,

    To repeat what I said in 1994, big fires are more dangerous and costly than small fires, and, to belabor the obvious, burn a lot less acreage. The issue with Ryan Gulch was not the Fireline Handbook, the Standard Orders, or the Watch Out Situations. It was poor judgment. If local knowledge and tactics had been adopted, the outcome would have been much different — and there would have been no lawsuit. Instead, the Red Team insisted on lighting backfires in hot, dry conditions, on steep slopes, and under high winds, which created a second fire that added 12 square miles to the acreage burned, and nearly got several people killed. Consequently, that the Red Team did not follow the rules to the letter, which it did not, was not the central point of the case.

    The central point of the case was that the Red Team should not have been conducting firing operations in the conditions they found with the crews they had on hand, regardless of whether they adhered to the Fireline Handbook. In other words, even if they had followed the rules, and documented their every move, it would have made no difference in the end. It would instead have just made our case easier to prove.

    The Red Team’s decision to pursue reckless tactics made the fire much bigger and more dangerous than it had to be. It was their poor decision making, more than their inability to observe standard orders or keep decent records, that set them up for liabilty.

    ~ Q

  9. Tim

    With Mr Rhoades ” squaring.” I would be willing to bet there are PLENTY of so called leaders in the land management program that have done the same

    Uhhh, let’s see Mr Mark Rey violating the 2 yr rule of leaving Federal office and getting a nice little gig with Lockheed Martin…you know violating rules like getting a gig with private industry after being the “BMOC” of USFS and gettin set with a lucrative position with the same folks who bring u the C130.

    If we and us go in to the paralysis of the analysis….we will see many a Mr Rhoades in the very industry called “natural resources.” Mr Rhoades brought SME experience to the courtroom. Some would see

    Mr Rhoades just was smarter than the rest of us and went on to something bigger and maybe better.

    I look at my past in the NR field…with some good memories…only I saw the writing on the wall, also.

    Nonetheless, without paralyzing the analyzing about how Mr Rhoades “squares” let’s see how all the RX types can square with how to ID a dry windy day and the application of a match, fusee, or drip torch to the ground.

    THEN……see how all that “squares” up with all the communities in the last 20 yrs that have lost homes, lives, and livelihoods when someone “ain’t” square with a season or able to ID weather, winds, etc and then many of these RX burns go on there merry way without nary a learning experience after the proverbial AAR.

    Ever notice how many RX burns escape and create havoc and the ones that stay in prescription do not get the attaboys?

    One !!@@# eliminates plenty o attaboys and that sure “squares” with plenty of us. Mr Rhoades must have learned something after 1994. Plenty of others here on these articles provided by Mr Gabbert will have to “square” with the communities and the lives when they “touch one off” in seasons that need a second, third, and fourth look even before they can consider a management goal!! No matter the burn plan!!!

  10. Thank you for the update. The phrase “You had to have been there.” fits right in with what happened in 2000 at the Ryan Gulch fire and what happened during the trial in the Granite County Court room 2012. Funny how this was one of the major cases in Granite County yet it wasn’t covered by any local paper. Nor did any local officials observe the trial except for a few minutes by the JP and the County Attorney’s clerk. You’d think that with the current process of updating local hazard mitigation plans (involving state and federal agencies) they would ALL be interested as to how these agencies( with outside assistance) handled and took control over a local emergency like a wild fire. What really happened addressing both the pros and cons. Especially considering that of all the possible “disasters”, Granite County would be more likely to have either a major fire or flood incident. After watching and listening to 8 days of testimony, from both expert and eye witnesses plus documents, I’d really be leery about delegating total control over to any outside federal agencies.

  11. Bill, thanks for the in-depth analysis. Agree with everything, especially third bullet “Conduct outreach with locals, …” and the good work done byJefferson County Sheriff’s office.

    A big “However”, the federal agencies still highly restrict use of social media e.g. Twitter only directing viewers to InciWeb. Until the agencies delegate responsible use of social media down to the Incident they will always be behind the curve in getting timely, accurate information out to those that need it.

      1. Tim – I remember reading Mr. Rhodes comments back in 1994, but do not believe they are relevant to the issue at hand: back then, he was a smokejumper without any fire management responsibilities except to be a Pulaski-motor on a crew; today, he is an attorney representing to the best of his abilities the interests of his clients. Differnt day, different issue and the Jury was the ultimate judge of who was right this time. At least no one died!

      2. Seems to me that we should use the concept from the After Action Review (AAR) and concentrate on the WHAT and not worry about the WHO.

  12. Bill,

    Impressive post. You did your homework. I especially appreciated your recommendations for the future. This was not a runaway jury, nobody got “home-towned,” and it would be a tragic mistake to treat it that way. There are some important lessons here that deserve careful study. I hope your post makes that clear to the wildland fire community, and I consider your effort to be a public service of great importance.


    1. It troubles me that some of you folks seem to be buying the plaintiff’s contention that the IMT was reckless and irresponsible for using fire as a suppression tool on this fire. I’m not surprised that the plaintiff’s attorney would take this tack, he was trying to win a judgment for his clients, that’s what he gets paid to do.
      To portray southern area Type 1 teams as a bunch of reckless yahoos who don’t understand “western” firefighting (whatever that means) does them a tremendous disservice. Most of the Ops folks on these teams have fought many fires in the west, and in their home regions, they put more fire on the ground in one year during prescribed burning season than many “western” firefighters will do in their entire careers. Granted, many areas in the southeast have less terrain challenges than some areas out west, but experienced southern firefighters understand forest fire behavior very well.
      In contrast, most “western” local fire departments have very little experience using fire as a suppression tool on a large scale. It does not surprise me at all that that they would stick to direct tactics and look askance at people who did use fire as a suppression tool.
      I have been privileged in my career to have several burn details in the southeast, including as a Burn Boss. It is incredible what southern firefighters are able to accomplish in terms of using minimal resources to burn large numbers of acreage year after year. Folks who offhandedly dis them as being ignorant and reckless with fire don’t know what they are talking about.
      Hindsight is a wonderful thing, ain’t it? It allows people who have the benefit of knowing the outcome to second-guess the actions of those who were undoubtedly trying to do their best in a desperate situation, and could not absolutely predict the outcome. Make no mistake, the 2000 fire season was a desperate situation, with thousands of acres on fire all over the west, limited suppression resources, and extreme burning conditions on a scale that most firefighters will only see once or twice in their careers. Who is to say that the ranchers’ land would not have burned anyway if different tactics were employed, or that even more acres would have burned on this fire? Not me, cause I wasn’t there.
      As a firefighter, I am concerned that this precedent will discourage firefighters from using a necessary tool when they ought to. Sometimes, putting fire on the ground is the only way to save a bad situation, and sometimes, direct tactics are a waste of time. And sometimes, nothing works. There was a lot of that going on in the 2000 fire season.


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