Families Sue Equipment Makers Over 2001 Washington Wildfire Deaths

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Families of three firefighters who died in the Thirtymile Fire are suing equipment companies, contending emergency shelters issued by the U.S. Forest Service were unsafe and instructions for their use inadequate.

Relatives of Tom Craven, 30; Karen FitzPatrick, 18; and Jessica Johnson, 19, filed their lawsuits Friday on the eve of the third anniversary of the fire in the Okanogan National Forest north of Winthrop.

The family of 21-year-old Devin Weaver, the fourth firefighter who died at Thirtymile, told the Yakima Herald-Republic they also plan to sue but declined to disclose details.

Mistakes by fire commanders trapped the firefighters in the dead-end Chewuch River Canyon north of Winthrop. The families of all four fallen firefighters filed wrongful-death claims against the Forest Service last year. The government did not respond to those claims.

The lawsuits filed Friday say training materials suggest deploying the shelters on a rocky slope _ as the firefighters did. But attorneys for the families say such terrain does not allow a seal tight enough to protect those inside from heat and flames.

People who spread their shelters on a dirt road below the slope survived the Thirtymile blaze.

The families of FitzPatrick and Johnson filed their lawsuits in Yakima County Superior Court. Craven's family filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Spokane and in Okanogan County Superior Court.

Lawyers for the families say alleged equipment weaknesses are one of the few legal options for the families because the government insulates itself from lawsuits in employee deaths.

Yakima attorney Mariano Morales, who represents FitzPatrick's estate, concedes that fighting wildfires will always be dangerous.

``If we can make things just a little bit safer, we all win. The parents of future firefighters will win,'' said Morales, who has fought fires for the Forest Service, himself.

The lawsuits name as defendants the National Association of State Foresters, which works with the federal government on firefighting issues and helped design training materials on use of the shelters, and several companies that made the shelters and other firefighting equipment, such as helmets and gloves.

The Herald-Republic did not name the companies in its story for Saturday editions, and court documents were not immediately accessible.

Tacoma attorney John Connelly Jr., representing Johnson's estate, said Friday's filings will allow further investigation of the companies.

Connelly acknowledged that some people question whether it was the Forest Service or the companies that were responsible for final design of the shelters and instruction manuals, but he argued the companies are clearly liable.

``To provide inadequate warnings and inadequate instructions regarding how to deploy them and where to deploy them is grossly negligent,'' he said.

The shelters, considered a last resort, have been used by federal firefighting crews since the 1970s. The design was challenged as early as 1990, but the Forest Service did not provide funds for additional research until 1999.

A new shelter, designed to withstand direct flames and greater heat, was made available last year.

Two campers who survived the Methow Valley fire _ Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer of Thorp _ sued the U.S. Forest Service in federal court last month. They allege the agency didn't properly block the route into the fire and failed to warn them of its approach.

The Hagemeyers survived when a firefighter crammed them in with her in a one-person emergency shelter.

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic