A Wildfire Burned Their Homes, Now 32 Wyomingites Are Suing U.S. Forest Service

The 2018 Roosevelt Fire in northwest Wyoming burned 65,000 acres and 55 homes. Now 32 people and organizations are suing the U.S. Forest Service for allowing the fire to burn after it was discovered.

Clair McFarland

September 15, 20234 min read

Fire crews put out a hot spot in the Roosevelt Fire in Wyoming in 2018, which burned more than 65,000 acres and 55 homes.
Fire crews put out a hot spot in the Roosevelt Fire in Wyoming in 2018, which burned more than 65,000 acres and 55 homes. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Thirty-two Wyoming residents and organizations are suing the federal U.S. Forest Service, saying the department didn’t shut down a manmade fire during the dry windy days of September 2018 in time to spare their homes and lands in Northwest Wyoming.  

They filed a federal lawsuit against the department Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, asking for monetary compensation for their burned lands, attorney fees and any other relief the court deems appropriate.  

They claim the U.S. Forest Service was negligent and trespassed their lands by letting the 2018 Roosevelt fire that started in the Bridger-Teton National Forest rage southward and down Wyoming’s Hoback region unchecked in the name of using it to burn away forest dross.  

“(The Forest Service) chose not to suppress the Roosevelt Fire,” reads the lawsuit complaint.

This caused personal injury, property damage and other damages to the plaintiffs, they claim, though the lawsuit doesn’t list specifics of whom the fire injured and what it damaged.  

Using an unplanned fire to achieve natural resource benefits isn’t authorized by federal law and runs contrary to the National Environmental Policy Act, the complaint says. The document also accuses the agency of failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act and failing to harmonize the act with the Forest Plan for the region.  

The federal court can hear their case because the Federal Tort Claims Act makes the United States liable, generally, for its employees’ negligence, the plaintiffs say in their complaint.  

Before resorting to a lawsuit, the plaintiffs submitted their claims to the federal agency, and the agency failed to act on those claims within six months, says the complaint document.  

The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond Friday to a Cowboy State Daily request for comment.  

Dry September 

No lightning ground strikes happened in the Hoback region in the 12 days before the fire starting Sept. 3, 2018, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration record the complaint cites.  

The fire was first reported Sept. 15, 2018.  

The next day, the Forest Service published its Wildfire Decision Support System documentation for the fire, saying its policy was to monitor it and inform the public, says the complaint.  

“My Decision is to manage the Roosevelt Fire with an initial emphasis on monitoring fire progression and visitor safety,” the federal announcement said, according to the complaint. “The fire has a high probability of remaining manageable with a smaller organization due to few values at risk.” 

But at that time the Bridger-Teton National Forest was in “Red Flag” fire conditions, with high winds and low humidity, the complaint says.  

“Warm, dry conditions were expected to continue through the week,” the document adds.  

The complaint says that that same day, the forest service told visitors and hunters to stay out of the area, saying that “use of restoration wildfire” could help managers reduce the risk of future mega-fires in the national forest. 

The agency then told the news media it was using the fire on the landscape to “reintroduce fire in its natural role.”  

The lawsuit complaint claims this is incongruous with how national agencies should handle manmade fires.  

Like Wildfire 

By Sept. 17, 2018, the forest service used the fire to “restore fire” to the landscape several miles to the east of the spark point, triggering evacuations northwest of Pinedale, Wyoming, says the complaint.  

The next day the agency “used” the fire again to treat landscapes near Bondurant, Wyoming.  

Local authorities evacuated 230 homes because of the fire, the document claims.  

By the morning of Sept. 19, 2018, the forest service had used the fire to “restore fire” to 25,000 total acres along the landscape.  

The next day the fire “burned its first home in the Hoback Subdivision,” the complaint says.

It kept damaging property from Sept. 21-23, 2018.  

In the end, the fire consumed more than 65,000 acres and burned 55 homes.

The Plaintiffs

  • Jennifer and Matthew Accurso

  • George Bolcato

  • Tom and Kitty Drean

  • Brandon Fairbanks

  • Troy Jerup

  • David Johnson

  • Richard and Valerie LeBrecque

  • Jim McCollum

  • Roice McCollum

  • William and Phyllis Mehle

  • Gregory and Anne Mehle

  • Randall Olson

  • Paul Orndorff

  • Glen Paulson and Linda Cooper

  • Charles Pfeiffer

  • Robert Pfeiffer

  • Owen Popinchalk

  • Teresa Schrader

  • Sam and Janice Sumrall

  • Ronald and Alice Warren

  • Gary and Valerie Zunino

  • The G & V Zumino Family 1996 Trust

  • Fisherman YP, LLC

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter