WYOMING — The family of two hunters injured in the 2018 Roosevelt Fire near Bondurant, Wyoming are filing a personal injury claim against the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The men allege that Forest Service officials did not take appropriate action to fight the fire that started September 15, the opening day of deer season.
A total of 31 parties have now filed tort claims against the United States Forest Service for damages inflicted by the Roosevelt Fire.
Steve Knezovich [KNEE-zo-vich] and his son Dakota were hunting the hillside above Roosevelt Meadows on the Bridger-Teton National Forest when they saw smoke from a small fire. Repeatedly put on hold by Forest dispatchers, Steve was finally able to call his wife, Deb Knezovich, who called the fire into the Forest headquarters by providing Steve’s cell phone coordinates.
Steve and Dakota saw helicopters responding to the fire and were confident the Forest Service was on the scene. They could not know that the fire was unstaffed and that no one was trying to control it that day or for the next three days. Bridger Teton National Forest Supervisor Karen O’Connor declined to act, opting instead to monitor the fire.
The next day, the Knezovich’s were cut off from the trailhead leading back to their truck, trapped by the fire, and fleeing for their lives. Badly burned, the men used the river to guide them out of the fire and smoke. With low visibility and with great difficulty due to their burns and fire debris along the trail, the men made it back to their truck. Others from their hunting party were waiting for them. Realizing the men were injured, they immediately transported them to a location where they could call 911 and meet ambulances on the highway.
Quentin Rhoades of Rhoades Siefert & Erickson said he and his partners are representing the Knezovich’s of Rock Springs, Wyoming in the personal injury claim. Rhoades said the Forest Service knew, or should have known, the fire was human-caused and should have taken swift action to fight it. Forest Service policy and practice requires the agency to aggressively fight human-caused fires. “It’s the standard of care for human-caused fires,” Rhoades said.
Lightning strike records available at the time from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) severe weather web site showed the last lightning strike in the area was August 28. Firefighters were available who were just leaving a nearby fire that same day.
Rhoades is representing the Knezovich’s and most of 30 more claimants who are filing tort claims against the Forest Service under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) said Frank Carroll, managing partner at Professional Forest Management, a wildfire consultancy assisting with the Roosevelt fire claims.
“The Forest Service fumbled, people were injured, and 55 homes burned in Hoback Ranches subdivision,” Carroll said. “People won’t recover from that fire for many years.”
“It’s normal practice to close the Forest to open fires when fire danger indices are so high and fire conditions are so dangerous,” Carroll said.
Claims are expected to top $100 million dollars, Rhoades said. Claimants include the Hoback Ranches Service Improvement District (HRSID) and individual property owners, many of whom lost homes or whose land was severely burned.
Carroll said an unfortunate, ill-advised, and undocumented backfire started by a Hotshot crew on or about September 23 was the proximate cause of the homes burning in the Hoback Ranches.
Rhoades expects the various claims to be heard in the federal district court within two years.