Crew boss charged in deaths of 4 firefighters during 2001 blaze

Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors in Spokane filed charges Wednesday against Ellreese N. Daniels, 46, the crew boss in charge of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters who died during the 2001 Thirty Mile wildfire near Winthrop, Wash.

Firefighters Tom Craven, 30; Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Karen FitzPatrick,18, died from inhaling superheated air when the fire swept over their fire shelters, which were set up on a rocky slope.

Ten other firefighters and two civilian campers in the area survived.

Daniels was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making a false statement to investigators.

Court documents state that Daniels' conduct as the crew boss "resulted in the entrapment" that caused the deaths of the firefighters.

Prosecutors allege that Daniels failed to order the firefighters out of harm's way and did not ensure that the crew deployed their shelter on the best surface.

"Mr. Daniels again engaged in gross negligence by failing to prepare the crew for a possible deployment," according to the affidavit of John R. Parker, the special agent for the USDA's Office of Inspector General, who conducted the investigation.

Daniels reportedly told investigators that he ordered the firefighters to get off the rocky slope, but court documents show that witnesses have contradicted that account.

Daniels' federal public defender, Christina Hunt, said, "It's truly appalling that the government has singled out Mr. Daniels for prosecution.... This was such an unpredictable and huge fire, that there's really no way that anybody could have anticipated something like this could have happened."

The Forest Service's own 2 1/2-month internal investigation into the fire in 2001 concluded, "Leadership was fragmented and ineffective at all levels during the afternoon of July 10th."

Daniels is still employed by the Forest Service, though he is no longer a fire boss. He has not been arrested and is expected to make his first court appearance in January.


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