Thirty households and a pair of hunters have filed tort claims against the Bridger-Teton National Forest, alleging that mismanagement of the 2018 Roosevelt Fire caused them personal harm.
A Missoula, Montana, law firm is representing the claimants, who say the Bridger-Teton should have aggressively fought the fire from its onset and that an undocumented burnout operation inadvertently caused the blowup that devastated the rural Hoback Ranches subdivision.
“They decided to monitor the fire because it was their judgment that it was kind of scrolling around on rocks and wasn’t gonna be a big factor,” said Frank Carroll, a consultant working with the claimants.
Generally, the U.S. Forest Service fights human-caused fires and allows lightning-caused ones to burn, if they aren’t immediately threatening homes or critical infrastructure. The claimants, whose damage filings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are likely to exceed $100 million, say the Bridger-Teton knew there were no lightning strikes in the area Sept. 15 of that year when the fire started and should have snuffed the blaze.
“There’s absolutely no doubt this is a human-caused fire,” Carroll said. “The point is they knew or they should have known because they have the same access to the NOAA severe weather data that all the rest of us have.”
The hunters are Steve and Dakota Knezovich, of Rock Springs, who were burned the day after the fire started. Their claim states that they tried to call the fire in, and though a Forest Service employee told them the area was being closed and they needed to leave, they were not told the fire was not being actively suppressed.
Before they exited the Roosevelt Meadows area, the two hunters were burned as the fire swept over them, and they reached the trailhead only by following a creek. They have filed a personal injury claim with the USDA, while the 30 homeowners have filed tort claims.
Their allegation is that a hotshot crew lit an undocumented backburn or burnout, ostensibly to deprive the fire’s leading edge of fuel, that ultimately swept through Hoback Ranches. Carroll said no record of this operation exists in the documents he was provided by the Forest Service, but that local firefighters on scene attest to its occurrence.
The federal government can take up to two years to render a decision. The USDA has never approved any of the similar claims his firm has assisted with, Carroll said, so he expects the agency to deny them. The next step would be litigation, which could eventually lead to a settlement, rather than a lengthy court proceeding.
The modern approach to wildland firefighting, Carroll said, is partly to blame for the conflagration that tore through Hoback Ranches. Fire crews are more likely to set large burnouts rather than digging firelines, which, in his mind, creates the kind of damage he thinks the government should compensate homeowners for.
“They’re putting people in danger and burning private property,” Carroll said. “And then when they use this big box and burn strategy for fighting fire, they’re creating more danger and even more damage. And so they can’t do that stuff without compensating people.”