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Know the West

Suit may hamstring wildland firefighters



A $54 million lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service in July may remove a valuable tactic from firefighters' toolboxes.

On Aug. 6, 2000, in an attempt to stop the Spade Fire as it burned toward houses near Connor, Mont., federal firefighters lit backfires to deprive the fire of fuel in its path. But the 113 homeowners and individuals who make up the "Backfire 2000 Group," which filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, say the backfires themselves destroyed the 29 homes burned that day. In all, 70 homes and buildings burned in the Bitterroot Valley that summer as fire charred about 356,000 acres.

While the lawsuit isn't likely to result in a total ban on backfires, it could make firefighters hesitant to use the technique in an emergency. Kathy McAllister, the deputy forester for the Forest Service's Northern Rockies region, says, "Our ability to effectively suppress fires will be compromised if our incident commanders or crew bosses are worried about being sued."

But fire managers say defensive fire is still an important tool, especially as a last resort. "There are tough decisions to make out there," says Mike Dietrich, the fire management officer on the San Bernardino National Forest in California. "People don't call the fire department because things are going good."