Congressman Drops Wildland Suit Against Billings FD

Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg has agreed to drop his controversial lawsuit against the Billings Fire Department over the handling of a 2008 wildland fire on his ranch.

The suit, filed in 2010, alleged that Billings firefighters were negligent in failing to fully extinguish the fire on July 2, 2008, allowing it rekindle on July 4, 2008 destroying 1200 acres.

The Congressman has characterized the dismissal as necessary because “politics” have been injected into the case. However, the suit has had political implications from the day it was filed. Back in 2010, Rehberg strategically waited until he had won a key republican primary election before filing the suit. Then he claimed the suit was brought by his wife, not him. He also claimed that the suit challenged command level decision-making, not the “excellent” work of the firefighters.

What appears to be a more likely cause for the change of heart is that as the discovery process has unfolded, the fire department’s documentation and fireground decision-making proved to be considerably more sound than Rehberg had hoped. In fact, facing 100 degree temperatures and high winds, crews saved over 40 homes and limited what could have been a much more disastrous fire from escalating.  Consider the following excerpt from a letter written by the city’s attorney to Rehberg’s attorney:

“I would hope that, if your clients actually take the time to review the documents that I have provided you, including the incident report forms, the detailed timelines, the dispatch records and the other documentation, they will — rather than condemning the firefighters — congratulate them for a job well done… I hope that I will be in receipt of dismissal paperwork for this lawsuit, and that I can let our firefighters know they can get back to the most important job they have — that of saving lives.”

Rehberg, who has a net worth estimated at over $63 million, is now in a contested race with democrat Jon Tester, and Tester has been portraying  the suit as proof that Rehberg is “selfish and out of touch”.

More on the story.

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.
  • ukfbbuff

    From what i recall, this fire was in an area of “Forest vegetation” which essentially burned through the area while the BFD was in a “Structure Protection Group”.

    At any rate, glad to read that this “Dirt Bag” Politician with drew his Lawsuit.

    Didn’t make sense anyway. If all that was damaged was vegetation during high fire danger, “Governmental Immunity” probably would have been applied.


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