Woodsmen Spared by Insurance Policies

Think of it as malpractice insurance for fire bosses. U.S. Forest Service managers are buying liability insurance policies to protect themselves if they are investigated or prosecuted for their decisions about fires.

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It's forest fire season and crews are busy throughout the west. And in addition to the men and women on the lines, fire managers are feeling the pressure. These days, managers face the possibility of criminal charges if something goes wrong on the fire lines. In response, more and more are buying liability insurance. Think of it as malpractice insurance for fire bosses.

Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reports from Seattle.

AUSTIN JENKINS reporting:

Mike Lohrey has been with the U.S. Forest Service for 36 years. Today he's a Type 1 Incident Commander. That means he's qualified to run the show on the largest most complex fires.

Mr. MIKE LOHREY (U.S. Forest Service): I have the best job in the world.

JENKINS: When Lohrey isn't on the fire lines, he works out of a cubicle at the Forest Service Building in Portland, Oregon. His walls and shelves are covered with posters, plaques and thank you gifts commemorating the fires he's been on.

Mr. LOHREY: The Biscuit fire in Southwest Oregon, the Heyman fire in Colorado, the biggest timber fire in New Mexico state history, called Poneill.

JENKINS: Lohrey enjoys the responsibility of managing a large fire, but also knows it's a dangerous business and things can go wrong. That's why about three years ago he bought liability insurance. It provides coverage in case he ever has to hire a lawyer to defend him in a criminal or administrative investigation. Lohrey isn't alone. In the last five years, the number of Forest Service employees with liability insurance has tripled.

Ms. DEBRA ROTH (Attorney): Thirty Mile Fire was the sea change.

JENKINS: Debra Roth is a Washington D.C. based attorney whose specializes in federal employment law. She says the legal climate changed after four firefighters were killed on the Thirty Mile Fire in Washington State in 2001.

Ms. ROTH: The Forest Service in the last few years has clearly announced to its employees its intent to investigate and determine whether to hold them accountable either in a criminal or disciplinary proceeding if they messed up.

JENKINS: In fact, federal law now requires an Inspector General investigation into fatal forest fires. The first test of that law was the Cramer Fire in Idaho in 2003. Two firefighters were killed and the Incident Commander was investigated for involuntary manslaughter. This has left some fire bosses feeling vulnerable. Ken Jordan manages firefighters on the front lines of California forest fires.

Mr. KEN JORDAN (U.S. Forest Service): You know I'm working for the government. I've worked here for 33 years. And we shouldn't have to take out liability insurance for doing our job. We should be backed by the government, by our agency.

JENKINS: But Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman, says employees who follow the rules should have nothing to worry about.

Mr. DAN JIRON (U.S. Forest Service): Over the last hundred years in the Forest Service we've learned a lot. And we're changing as an institution, but I don't believe there's any less commitment to our employees than there ever was.

JENKINS: In fact, the Forest Service picks up half the bill for liability insurance for qualified employees. The increased scrutiny of fire managers has come about in part due to pressure from the families of firefighters who have died. Kathie Fitzpatrick of Yakima, Washington, lost her daughter Karen on the Thirty Mile Fire. She's unapologetic that fire managers now feel the need to carry liability insurance.

Ms. KATHIE FITZPATRICK (Mother of fallen firefighter): You are making decisions that you have control under. And you are putting the lives of people at jeopardy or not jeopardy because of your talent and your decisions.

JENKINS: Back at the Forest Service offices in Portland, Incident Commander Mike Lohrey can relate. His daughter fights fires.

Mr. LOHREY: I would have a tough time and wanting to know what happened if something happened to her.

JENKINS: But he also admits if something ever goes wrong on one of his fires, now he'll call a lawyer before talking to investigators.

Mr. LOHREY: If something happened and it was obvious that I would be implicated, I would basically invoke the insurance and get an attorney there and let them advise me on how to proceed. That is a big change.

JENKINS: It also raises a big question. Will the drive to hold individual fire bosses responsible make it more difficult to learn from mistakes made on the fire lines?

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Seattle.

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