Montana Congressman Sues Billings Fire

A Republican Congressman from Montana has filed suit against the City of Billings alleging negligence in fighting a wildland fire on his property in 2008.

The fire occurred in Rehberg Ranch Estates, a 1,000 acre subdivision owned by Congressman Rehberg and his wife. It allegedly burned trees, ground cover, and equipment on the land, which the lawsuit described as “irreparable”.  The suit was filed last Friday, July 2, 2010, in Yellowstone County District Court shortly after the Congressman won the Republican primary election.

Rehberg’s Democratic contender, Dennis McDonald, who happens to be a volunteer firefighter, has seized on the issue claiming that the Congressman has a net worth of $63 million, and instead of thanking the firefighters for risking their lives to save his properly he is demanding that the citizens of Billings give him another million dollars.  In a press release McDonald said: "The Billings Fire Department and the heroes who work there should not have to worry about the Rehbergs suing them while they are putting everything they have into doing what's right."

McDonald has publically called on Rehberg to drop the suit and apologize.

Oddly enough, Rehberg is not the only Montana Republican politician to offend firefighters  in recent memory. Former Senator Conrad Burns made headlines in 2006 when he accused members of a Virginia wildland “hot shot” crew who had come in to assist local firefighters - of doing a "poor job" and not allowing ranchers to fight fires as they saw fit. The outburst occurred as the firefighters sat in the airport awaiting their flight home. The remarks led to what some have called an altercation, and others called a “lively discussion”. Burns lost his reelection bid later that year.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • John K. Murphy

    It’s interesting that the determination of irreparable is noted in the litigation. The best thing that can happen to wildland is to burn it off to allow new growth to occur. Equipment and outbuildings are replaced with insurance and thank god there was no loss of life. I would be interesting to see the cause and origin. It probably started on his land now he’s upset that it could not be controlled. In the “Wild West” there is a practice called silvaculture which is the science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values of the many landowners, societies and cultures. Many times the landowners/ farmers will intentionally start fires on the property to kill bugs and allow the land to regenerate in a healthier way. Occasionally they get out of hand and cause a FD response. Most of the wildland fires are caused by humans and by nature – lightening strikes. During the summer, the west is generally plagued with lots of fire. This is especially noticeable where the urban growth is interfacing with the wildland.
    So for the congressman to sue, from a firefighters perspective is idiotic, as he probably cut their overall funding for response. In the available media, it states that his wife is an attorney and he has a reported net worth of $6.5 to $56.1 million dollars, Rehberg is the fourteenth-richest U.S. Representative in the House. He should think about transferring some of his wealth to the fire department so they can mount a proper response to the surrounding community.

  • You wonder where some people get their sense of right and wrong from… I’m not a religious fanatic but I recall a Bible story of Jesus saying that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person make it into heaven.
    I read a 2006 news story that during the heated argument at the airport where Senator Burns was ripping into the Virginia crew – one of the firefighters mentioned that they were only getting between $7-$11 an hour to leave their homes and families to come to his state to risk their lives as firefighters. The comment apparently left the good Senator speechless. He must have assumed they were millionaires like he was.

  • Phil Moyer

    Does Montana’s fire departments fall under immunity? I would also add that the city only has a responsibility to provide fire protection, not the method those fires were controlled or extinguished.

  • Statement From Cliff Edwards, Attorney Representing Rehberg Ranch, LLC,
    Regarding the Lawsuit Filed Against the City of Billings and the Billings Fire Department
    “On Friday July 2, 2010, Rehberg Ranch, LLC filed a civil complaint against the City of Billings and the City of Billings Fire Department relating to events surrounding the July 4, 2008 fire that consumed 1,200 acres of property, including 600 acres of Rehberg Ranch property. Rehberg Ranch, LLC requested a report from the City of Billings regarding the fire and to date the city has not responded to that request. Last week, my law firm contacted the City offering to enter into settlement discussions and expressing our willingness to postpone litigation to facilitate these discussions. The City Administrator declined our offer. Consequently, because the City did not provide the requested information and refused to enter into any settlement discussions, Rehberg Ranch, LLC was forced to file the civil complaint in order to preserve the 2 year statute of limitation for property damage in Montana. This was not Rehberg Ranch’s desired course of action, but the City’s actions left us no choice.
    “Contrary to the unfounded allegations circulating in the political spectrum, the claim focuses on the administrative and management decisions and actions which led to the withdrawal of firefighters from an existing fire scene during high temperature and high wind conditions. The claim in no way undermines the excellent work of the first responders who so diligently worked to contain two earlier fires and subsequently contained and extinguished the re-ignited fire over the course of the next week. The claim also does not diminish the high regard Denny and Jan Rehberg have for City of Billings firefighters. In fact, the essence of the claim is that if the firefighters had been allowed to stay on the scene, the devastating events of July 4, 2008 would not have occurred, and the firefighters would not have been called to face such extreme conditions nor spend the next week extinguishing the significantly enlarged fire zone. The Rehberg’s are thankful for the hard work and dedication of the first responders and have nothing but the utmost respect for their efforts and dedication.
    “We will continue to make every effort with the City to resolve the claim with their insurance company.”

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