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Roosevelt Fire victims ask 10th Circuit to revive claims against 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) — Victims of the 2018 Roosevelt Fire on Wednesday asked the 10th Circuit to revive their lawsuit claiming the U.S. Forest Service considered resource benefits as a factor when it decided to let the manmade fire burn.

Starting on Sept. 15, 2018 in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the manmade Roosevelt Fire burned Lincoln and Sublette counties of Wyoming, consuming 25,000 acres and destroying nearby property.

Steven Knezovich and his son were hunting in the area when the fire broke out, but forest 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.

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

In its reply brief, 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, the Forest Service’s helicopter, needed to observe the area before entering, had been committed to another fire.

But Knezovich's attorney, Quentin Rhoades, contends the Forest Service wrongly factored in the resource benefits of letting the fire burn. Rhoades practices with the the Missoula firm Rhoades and Erickson.

“The problem is that it’s part of an overall bigger picture and that’s discretionary,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz, appointed by Barack Obama. “You’re not suggesting that that initial decision was made based only on that factor.”

Rhoades maintained the federal government is prohibited from considering resource benefits at all when managing a manmade fire.

“What you can’t do as a firefighter in this case is say 'the fire might do the forest a lot of good if we just let it burn' — your judgment does not apply in this context,” Rhoades argued. “That’s not an abuse of discretion, it’s not a mistake, it's flatly prohibited.”

Department of Justice Attorney Levi Martin asked the court to follow the lead set by the 2016 Hardscrabble Ranch case and affirm. But the Hardscrabble case hinged on the Forest Service following a decision checklist, not avoiding a certain factor.

“When you’re directed to not consider something, that removes it, and that seems different from Hardscrabble to me,” observed U.S. Circuit Judge Veronica Rossman, appointed by Joe Biden.

Martin countered that any differences were minimal.

“It’s too fine a point to make a difference,” Martin said. “It’s the flipside of the same coin.” He added: “The fire was in a dangerous location, they couldn’t access it and they didn’t have the resources to address it,” Martin reminded the court.

But the panel wondered whether the question was best answered by a jury.

“Might they have fought this fire the exact same way, isn’t that a jury question,” prodded U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, appointed by George W. Bush.

Knezovich requested the case be revived for further discovery.

Asked for comment, Forest Service press officer John Winn said in an email, “We respect the court's decision and we encourage all visitors to remember to check for current fire risk, weather events and be well prepared. The safety of visitors and adjacent communities to national forests is one of our top priorities.”

The court did not indicate when or how it will decide the case.

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