9th Circuit Punts Forest Fire Case to Tribal Court

     (CN) – The 9th Circuit declined to interfere with a tribal action against a woman who, while lost in the desert on the White Mountain Apache reservation, set a small signal fire that ignited a massive forest fire.

     Valinda Jo Elliott, described only as a “non-Indian” by Judge Graber, asked a federal judge in Arizona to stop the tribe from moving forward with a civil action in tribal court.
     The federal appeals court in San Francisco affirmed U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia’s conclusion that federal courts should wait until the tribal court has had the full opportunity to rule on its own jurisdiction.
     The White Mountain Apache Tribe filed a civil suit against Elliott for her role in sparking a forest fire that burned more than 400,000 acres.
     Elliott had been driving through the reservation with her boss, when they got lost and ran out of gas. They split up to search for help. Forest rangers rescued her boss, but could not find Elliott. She remained lost for three days, without adequate food, water or clothing.
     While roaming the desert, she saw a news helicopter covering the Rodeo forest fire in the distance. She tried to flag its attention by setting a small signal fire.
     “Fortunately her idea worked; the helicopter descended and rescued Plaintiff,” Judge Graber wrote. “Unfortunately, her signal fire grew into a substantial forest fire, which was named the Chediski fire. That fire eventually merged with the Rodeo fire and was dubbed, naturally, the Rodeo-Chediski fire. The combined fire burned more than 400,000 acres of land and caused millions of dollars in damage.”
     The United States declined to prosecute, but the tribe sued in tribal court. Elliott attempted, unsuccessfully, to challenge the tribal court’s jurisdiction in an Arizona court.
     “We are sympathetic to Plaintiff’s concerns about defending her actions in an unfamiliar court system,” Graber wrote. “But, because the tribal court jurisdiction is plausible, principles of comity require us to give the tribal courts a full opportunity to determine their own jurisdiction in the first instance.”

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