Monday, September 18, 2023
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10th Circuit extinguishes wildfire victims’ torts claims against US Forest Service

Victims say they barely escaped the 2018 wildfire after the U.S. Forest Service decided to let the fire burn and failed to tell them to evacuate.

DENVER (CN) — The U.S. Forest System need not answer to people who lost their homes in the 2018 Roosevelt Fire in Wyoming after the 10th Circuit on Friday upheld a lower court’s dismissal of federal torts claims.

Starting on Sept. 15, 2018, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the manmade Roosevelt Fire burned Lincoln and Sublette counties of Wyoming. The fire consumed 61,000 acres, destroyed 130 structures and forced 230 households to evacuate.

Steven Knezovich and his son were hunting in the area when the fire broke out, but said rangers failed to adequately warn them to evacuate. When the fire rapidly grew, the men suffered burns and barely made it out alive. Several local property owners joined the Knezovich family in suing the federal government on Sept. 23, 2021.

Knezovich claimed the Forest Service delayed action after wrongly factoring in the resource benefits of letting the fire burn.

A federal judge dismissed the case on Oct. 11, 2022. Knezovich appealed.

Though the United States government is shielded from the lawsuit, the Federal Torts Claims Act waives the nation’s sovereign immunity in certain circumstances to redress the wrongs of agency negligence. Even so, the law allows a wide “discretionary function exception," seen as needed for federal agencies to operate.

In court documents, the Forest Service argued it did not immediately tend to the Roosevelt Fire because the area was not easily accessible and therefore unsafe for firefighters. In addition to addressing other nearby fires, the Forest Service had committed its observation helicopter to another fire.

While the panel did not reach the merits of the case, the 10th Circuit sided with the government in finding whatever response it took amounted to a decision that only the agency could make.

"We have little trouble concluding that the ‘nature of the actions’ taken by the Forest Service involved the exercise of policy judgment of the sort the exception is meant to protect,” U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote in a 21-page order.

“The task of balancing these interests is best lodged with officials and experts on the ground than with judges aided by the benefit of hindsight,” the George W. Bush appointee added.

Obama-appointed Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz and Biden-appointed Circuit Judge Veronica Rossman joined in the opinion.  

Attorney Quentin Rhoades, a principal at the Missoula firm Rhoades and Erickson, represented the plaintiffs. He specializes in wildfire litigation. Rhoades told Courthouse News he was disappointed in the decision and discussing next steps with his clients.

“It's an important issue, especially with the conditions as they are now: a lot of drought conditions in the West and bigger wildfires and more extreme fire behavior,” he explained. "There's immense damage done to private property, residences, people's livelihoods, their ways of life. And, it turns out that there's just no recourse for that."

Representatives for the U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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Categories:Appeals, Environment

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