April 23, 2009 in City, Region

Thirtymile fire death lawsuit withdrawn

Yakima Herald-Republic
 

YAKIMA, Wash. — The parents of a firefighter killed in the Thirtymile forest fire have withdrawn a lawsuit against a U.S. Forest Service official, putting to rest the last lawsuit related to the blaze that killed four firefighters in 2001.

Ken and Barb Weaver, of Yakima, parents of fallen firefighter Devin Weaver, agreed to withdraw their suit earlier this month. The U.S. attorney’s office in Boise, Idaho, which handled the civil litigation tied to Thirtymile, announced the end of the case Wednesday.

The Weavers had argued that Maureen Hanson, the administrative officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, disposed of their son’s fire shelter to block their contention that the shelters were defective.

Shelters are small, aluminum foil tents designed to protect firefighters from radiant heat and smoke. They are deployed as a last resort when flames are approaching.

A separate lawsuit against the shelter manufacturers by the Weavers and the other firefighters’ families over the shelters’ construction was settled in 2006 for a confidential amount.

Hanson said in pretrial motions that she did dispose of the shelter but didn’t do so because of the lawsuit.

“While our hearts go out to the families of the firefighters whose sons and daughters perished in the tragic Thirtymile fire, I am pleased that we were able to successfully defend the actions of a conscientious public servant and vindicate her reputation,” Thomas Moss, the U.S. attorney in Idaho, said in a statement.

An unattended campfire sparked the Thirtymile fire in north-central Washington’s Okanogan National Forest. Initially believed to be a simple mop-up job, the fire exploded, trapping 14 firefighters and two hikers in the Chewuch River Canyon on July 10, 2001.

Four firefighters died when the spot where they deployed their fire shelters was overrun by flames: Weaver, 21, Tom Craven, 30, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all from central Washington.

Barb Weaver said told the Herald-Republic on Wednesday that she and her husband really wanted to sue the Forest Service, not Hanson. Their case was handicapped once their attorneys determined they did not have the evidence to prove Hanson intentionally disposed of the shelter.

Under federal law, the Forest Service can’t be fined by labor regulators, and it is difficult for outside parties to sue the agency.

Although Congress passed a bill designed to improve fatality investigations, the sweeping changes sought by the Weavers never survived.

“We think we made some strides, but did we really get to where we wanted to go? No, we didn’t,” she said, adding that she and her husband sought accountability, not money.

Besides the lawsuit against the shelter companies and the Weavers’ individual case, two Thorp campers who were trapped with the firefighters won a $400,000 settlement from the Forest Service in 2007.

Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer were camping on a dead-end road above the fire scene when the blaze erupted. They said incident commander Ellreese Daniels made no arrangements to protect them as the crew waited, hoping that the flames would pass them by.

The Hagemeyers dived into the shelter of firefighter Rebecca Welch, who was later lauded as a hero for helping save them. The shelters are only designed for a single occupant.

Daniels was the only person who faced criminal prosecution connected to Thirtymile. He was given 90 days on work release and ordered to serve three years probation after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators about his actions before the deaths.


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