Roosevelt Fire suit claims FS negligence, 32 seek damages

By Joy Ufford,
Posted 9/27/23

Now, 32 Hoback Ranches’ homeowners are again taking the Forest Service to court.

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Roosevelt Fire suit claims FS negligence, 32 seek damages


SUBLETTE COUNTY – Almost exactly five years ago on Sept. 15, 2018, the Roosevelt Fire sparked from a hunter’s small campfire by the Upper Hoback River near Bondurant and quickly spread in several directions to burn 61,500 acres of forest and private lands.

In five days, the Roosevelt Fire had covered 32,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and many residents of Hoback Ranches and the Upper Hoback had evacuated to safety.

Three days later with “red flag conditions” of low humidity and fickle winds, NASA noted, the Roosevelt Fire had consumed 48,348 acres with the Forest Service issuing more evacuations for Rolling Thunder, Jim Bridger Estates and warnings to Bondurant residents.

Eight-hundred personnel were on duty that day with 17 helicopters, four “very large air tankers” or VLATs, 47 engines, six dozers and 12 water tenders.

On Oct. 5, 2018, the Forest Service announced 100-percent containment after a reconnaissance flight, reopening the closed area and continuing to battle within GPS-recorded fire lines. Communities, students and other people continuously raised funds and collected donations, from much-needed storage sheds to cash.

Now, 32 Hoback Ranches’ homeowners are again taking the Forest Service to court.

“The Forest doesn’t comment on pending litigation,” said BTNF public affairs officer Mary Cernicek.


Hunter Steve Knezovich notified his wife of a small blaze in the distance on opening day. She called it in and gave the GPS coordinates where Knezovich and his son Dakota were near Grizzly Creek on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, 32 miles south of Jackson in steep, heavily treed slopes

Both said later they expected the Forest Service to begin fighting the fire; both were seriously burned as they tried to retreat from the blaze, according to news reports. They tried unsuccessfully to hold the Forest Service responsible for personal injuries, as did about 30 Hoback Ranches’ homeowners.

Of 153 homes there, 55 houses and outbuildings were consumed by the fire.

In 2020, the homeowners filed federal tort claims for personal damages that reportedly sought more than $100 million total.

The two hunters seriously burned on Sept. 15, 2018, before the fire was actively managed, filed their own claim seeking damages on Sept. 12, 2020.

All were assisted by wildfire consultant Frank Carroll of Professional Fire Management in Pueblo, Colorado. Carroll assisted Montana attorney Quentin Rhoades and Hoback Ranches’ property owners with what he called “wildfire post postmortems” to see whether Forest Service action – in this case during the Roosevelt Fire’s early days – “was appropriate … or if (Bridger-Teton National Forest managers) were making a decision about private property (burning) for management purposes.”

Carried on

After the 2020 federal tort claims were denied, Hoback Ranches’ property owners and the Knezoviches filed a 2021 civil suit in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court that Judge Alan B. Johnson dismissed, agreeing with the Forest Service that the agency could not be held liable.

Their 2022 appeal went to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Sept. 15 of this year –exactly five years after the Roosevelt Fire was spotted –  the judicial panel denied their attempt to overturn the judge’s ruling for the same reasons.

Return to court

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, the 32 homeowners filed a new civil suit against the Forest Service in U.S. District Court that claims the agency wrongly used the manmade fire to “reintroduce fire in its natural role” for wildlife habitat without considering its effect on private lands.

The complaint filed by Rhodes and Jackson attorney Bradley L. Booke seeks an advisory judicial verdict on claims that the Forest Service was “negligent,” violating the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and other federal policies.

“The use of unplanned fire to achieve natural resource benefits, which consists of major federal action, is not authorized by federal law because in deciding to use unplanned fire as a resource management tool, the Forest Service did not adhere to the (NEPA), did not consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act and did not harmonize with the applicable forest plan as the National Forest Management Act requires,” it states.

The homeowners have exhausted their administrative remedies; thus this civil suit “is ripe and justifiable,” it says. The complaint places fault on Forest Service employees and seeks unspecified money damages for injuries or losses of property and personal injuries.

Their decisions to “monitor and inform the public … and monitor fire activity” let the Roosevelt Fire burn during “red flag” weather conditions, the complaint says.

After the fire raged for four days, the Forest Service “had used Roosevelt Fire to restore fire to the landscape of more than 25,000 acres,” it says. The first Hoback Ranches’ home burned the next day and the rest through Sept. 23, 2018, it says.

It lists a count of “negligence” to exercise a degree of care and seeks compensation for personal property damages, loss of the property’s use and emotional distress.”

The second “trespass” count claims “the Forest Service’s Roosevelt Fire invaded the homeowners’ real and personal property … and its physical condition,” seeking unspecified compensation for property values before and after the fire, loss of the property and emotional distress.

“… Plaintiffs respectfully request the Court enter its order granting a money judgment for special and general damages against (the Forest Service) in such amount as the (32 Hoback Ranches’ homeowners) and each of them shall prove at the trial of the action,” the complaint closes, including attorney fees and any appropriate relief determined in an advisory trial.

The Hoback Ranches’ lawsuit, 2023-CV-00167, is assigned to U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl; nothing more was filed as of Sept. 27.