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.

Continue reading “Followup on Montana Representative’s lawsuit against Billings Fire Department”

Montana lawmaker sues fire department for loss of trees during fire

Rep Denny Rehberg
Rep. Denny Rehberg. Photo: Facebook

Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) has filed a lawsuit against the City of Billings, Montana and the Billings Fire Department for the loss of trees and ground cover on property managed by his wife during an 1,100-acre fire near the Billings airport in July of 2008. Rehberg, who is the developer of record for the subdivision, claims the fire department “breached its duty” during the fire which burned some of the property they intended to develop.

In August of 2009 Rehberg was a passenger in a boat which crashed, injuring himself and two staffers, one of which was in a coma for a week. The driver of the boat, state Senator Greg Barkus, was charged with three felonies, criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault, for allegedly drinking while driving the vessel and crashing the boat at high speed onto a rocky embankment.

Two hours after the crash, which happened between 10 p.m. and midnight, Barkus had a blood-alcohol level of .16, twice the legal limit. Rehberg said that he was surprised to learn the results of Barkus’ blood alcohol test.

“He didn’t appear to be impaired to me when we got on the boat for the return trip,” he said in a statement.

This is not the first time a Montana politician has taken on firefighters. In 2006 Montana Senator Conrad Burns accosted the Augusta Hot Shots when they were waiting for a flight home in the Billings airport after working on the 92,000-acre Bundy Railroad fire, saying to them:

See that guy over there? He hasn’t done a God-damned thing. They sit around. I saw it up on the Wedge fire and in northwestern Montana some years ago. It’s wasteful. You probably paid that guy $10,000 to sit around. It’s gotta change.

Burns was up for re-election, running against Democrat Jon Tester. Soon, 1,000 “Wildland Firefighters for Tester” bumper stickers appeared. Tester won by about 2,000 votes, and the leading political columnist for the Lee Newspaper chain credited the “firefighter flap.”

Rehberg won his Republican primary last month and will face Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald in the November 2 election. It’s anybody’s guess if “Firefighters for McDonald” bumper stickers will soon start appearing on cars.