US Forest Service Sued for New Mexico Flash Flood Deaths

The US Forest Service is being sued by the families of three people who were killed in flooding that followed the largest wildand fire in New Mexico’s history. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burned over 300,000 acres and damaged over 900 structures. It was the nation’s largest wildland fire in 2022.

The fire began on April 6, 2022 when a prescribed burn being conducted by the Forest Service got out of control. It was initially designated as the Hermit’s Fire, but it later it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, also attributed to the Forest Service. The fire was not fully contained until August 21, 2022.

In July, 2022, torrential rains led to a flash flood in the area where the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burned. The flooding led to the deaths of three people, Betty Lou Greenhaw, Linda Jane Cummings, and Jimmy Chris Cummings, who were vacationing at a cabin.

The suit filed by the families of the decedents claims the Forest Service’s negligence in causing the fires, failing to contain the fires, and failing to prevent access to areas at risk for flash flooding caused their deaths. It alleges negligence and wrongful death.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • The … Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Wildfire … is the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
  • The Fire caused by the negligence of the U.S. Forest Service has destroyed land, personal property and was the direct and proximate cause of the loss of life which gave rise to this case.
  • The Fire caused by the U.S. Forest Service created a “burn scar” in the affected areas which resulted in the loss of vegetative cover and loss of soil integrity which caused life threating flash floods.
  • On July 21, 2022, a flash flood resulting from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire “burn scar,” destroyed a cabin that was occupied by Betty Lou Greenhaw, Linda Jane Cummings, and Jimmy Chris Cummings.
  • All three individuals were killed as a result of the flood.
  • Defendant is liable in tort for injuries, including death, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sections 1346(b) and 2671 through 2680.
  • Defendant is liable for the negligent acts and omissions of its agents and employees, including the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Defendant admitted fault and liability for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire and the injuries which occurred as a result.
  • Defendant, through the U.S. Forest Service and its agents and employees, was negligent in the following ways:
    • Failing to follow mandated directives in the planning of prescribed burns.
    • Failing to follow mandated directives in the lighting of prescribed burns.
    • Failing to follow mandated directives in the management of prescribed burns.
    • Negligently lighting a prescribed burn under conditions which Defendant knew or should have known would result in a wildfire.
    • Negligently creating a wildfire by failing to follow mandated directives in the lighting of prescribed burns.
    • Failing to follow specific standards mandated in the prescribed fire plan.
    • Failing to conduct burn operations in accordance with the prescribed burn plan.
    • Failing to follow mandated directives for response to prescribed burns that become wildfires.
    • Failing to follow mandated directives in the management of prescribed burn created wildfires.
    • Failing to follow mandated directives to put in place barriers or other protective systems following the damage to the land in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar.
    • Failing to close roads and prevent access to areas at risk of life-threatening flooding.
    • Failing to warn Decedents regarding the dangers caused by the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
    • Failing to provide adequate warnings to Decedents regarding the dangers caused by the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
    • Failing to warn Decedents regarding the dangers of flash floods in the area where the Incident occurred.
    • Failing to provide adequate warnings to Decedents regarding the dangers of potential flash floods in the area.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
x

Check Also

Injured FDNY Firefighters Sue City for $80 Million

Four FDNY firefighters who were seriously injured last year, have filed suit against the city claiming that a policy of placing units out of service for their annual medical exams led to a delay in attacking the fire that resulted in their injuries. The firefighters are seeking $80 million in damages.

California Fire Department Sued Over PCBs in Waste Oil

The San Bernardino County Fire Department is being sued by an environmental contractor over the presence of PCBs in the department’s waste oil. The suit was brought in San Bernardino County Superior Court by Asbury Environmental Services doing business as World Oil Environmental Services.