Fire boss pleads guilty in deaths

SPOKANE, Wash. — A former fire boss on Tuesday pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the deaths of four firefighters in the 2001 Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop.

Ellreese Daniels, 47, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle to two misdemeanor counts of making false statements to investigators.

In exchange, the government dropped four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven felony counts of making false statements.

Daniels, of Lake Wenatchee, will be sentenced later this year. His case is believed to be the first time criminal charges were filed against a wildland firefighter for deaths of comrades on the line.

Daniels’ trial was set to begin Monday.

Federal defender Tina Hunt, Daniels’ attorney, said the agreement was fair because Daniels had not committed any crimes and should not face felony charges.

It was also time to close a case that had dragged on for years, she said.

Daniels, who now works for the U.S. Forest Service in a supply capacity, faced as much as six years in prison for each manslaughter count. Instead, he faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for each misdemeanor, although the standard range is much less. Hunt plans to ask for no prison time.

An unattended campfire sparked the Thirtymile Fire in the Okanogan National Forest. Initially believed to be a simple mop-up job, the fire exploded, trapping 14 firefighters and two hikers on July 10, 2001.

Daniels, a crew boss for the U.S. Forest Service, was accused of making decisions “in wanton and reckless disregard for human life” that led to the deaths of four firefighters. Prosecutors contended he failed to order his crew to a safe area as flames advanced.

Killed were firefighters Tom Craven, 30; Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all from central Washington.

Daniels was an incident commander at the Thirtymile Fire. Crews working in the Chewuch River Valley were ordered to keep the fire from crossing the road to the other side of the canyon.

Fire conditions grew steadily worse and the flames jumped the road. The 14 firefighters deployed their fire shelters as the flames approached their positions, but the four died.

Investigators found that supervisors had broken all 10 of the agency’s standard safety rules and ignored numerous signs of danger. No current weather reports were sought out, and bosses posted no lookout in the late afternoon, when fire activity is greatest. No water was dropped on the blaze for hours. The chain of command was murky.

Daniels was the only person to face criminal charges.

Concerning the false statement accusations, he denied to investigators that he talked to the crews of two fire engines who checked in with him when they arrived, although in fact he did talk with them, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office.

Daniels also said he told Squad Boss Craven and the other firefighters who were waiting on a rock scree as the flames advanced to come down to the road, but that they did not do so. In fact, Daniels did not tell them to descend from the rock where they perished, government lawyers wrote.

“This claim led to a conclusion that those who perished in the fire had disregarded a directive by Daniels,” although they had not, according to the news release.

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