Nevada Division of Forestry Guilty of Gross Negligence in Little Valley Fire
Little Valley Fire trial: Jury
ﬁnds Nevada Division of
Forestry guilty of gross
Jason Hidalgo, Reno Gazette Journal Published 1:34 p.m. PT Aug. 17, 2018 |
Updated 6:09 p.m. PT Aug. 17, 2018
A Washoe County jury on Friday found the Nevada Division of
Forestry guilty of gross negligence in the Little Valley Fire that
burned down 23 homes in 2016.
The jury also said the University of Nevada, Reno was not guilty
of gross negligence as part of their role in the prescribed burn
that exploded out of control on Oct. 14, 2016.
"Vindicated, vindicated," said a tearful Debbie Sheltra when
asked how she felt about the verdict.
Sheltra was one of several residents whose house burned down
from the Little Valley Fire.
"It doesn't replace what we've lost, but we feel a great sense of
satisfaction because we were right and we didn't give up," Sheltra
Matt Sharp, one of the lawyers for the fire victims, called the
decision "a just verdict." Sharp, who argued in court for the jury to
find UNR grossly negligent as well, said the verdict still sends the
right message despite the university not being found liable the
same way NDF was.
"The point of the verdict is that what happened in Franktown
Road shouldn't happen to anybody," Sharp said. "This is a step in
the right direction."
The Reno Gazette Journal did not have a chance to talk to
lawyers for the state after the verdict. During closing arguments,
however, lead defense lawyer Steven Shevorski said "mistakes
were made and we will accept the consequences," while
addressing the jury.
Despite the victory, representatives for the fire victims say their
battle is not over yet.
The issue now moves to how much damages the state will be
liable for, which is capped by Nevada law at $100,000. A Reno
Gazette Journal analysis found that total damages to residents
from the fire exceeded $80 million, with destroyed houses having
an average worth of $1.4 million.
Dave Houston, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the cap unfair.
"If a regular citizen (does the same amount of damage), they
would be bankrupt," Houston said. "If the state does it, they have
such a limited liability that not everyone is made whole.
Sharp echoed Houston's comment, saying that the state should
be held accountable for the damage they caused.
"It's an unjust law but we'll have to deal with it," Sharp said.
"We're gonna take it one step at a time."
Gross negligence was front and center in the Little Valley Fire trial
as lawyers made their final argument before the jury on Friday.
Lawyer Bill Jeanney, who represented fire victims, slammed the
Nevada Division of Forestry for failing to exercise "even a slight
amount of care" — the legal definition for gross negligence — in
several instances during his closing argument.
RGJ Investigates: Burn size, poor monitoring and delays helped
fuel Little Valley Fire
Jeanney listed a litany of issues with the NDF’s implementation of
the Little Valley burn, which escaped containment and turned into
a full-blown wildfire on Oct. 14, 2016.
These include a faulty burn plan that did not include an analysis
of fuels adjacent to the burn as well as notes by burn boss trainee
Paul Carmichael that the agency proceeded despite conditions
falling out of prescription, Jeanney said.
“This is a very dangerous business of lighting fires so if you’re
gonna do it, you have to follow the rules,” Jeanney said.
The defense, meanwhile, countered that NDF did its due
diligence in carrying out the burn. Lawyer Steven Shevorski
pointed to the independent report released after the fire that
stated the Little Valley Burn, despite its issues, was done
“Is that gross negligence?” Shevorski said. “Is that failure to use
even a slight degree of care?”
Both sides also debated the role of the University of Nevada,
Reno, in the Little Valley Fire and whether it had any liability for
the damage caused. The university, which owned the Whittell
Forest land where the fire started, was a partner in the Little
Matt Sharp, one of the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that the
university pushed for the burn despite objections from community
members. The accusation followed a pattern by the plaintiffs’
lawyers of casting responsibility on people in positions of
leadership and putting crew members in a tough spot.
“These poor, young men were put in a position to fail — UNR
did,” Sharp said. “This is about an institution engaging in a joint
effort to impose their will on a community. The community didn’t
want the burn. The U.S. Forest Service didn’t want the burn.”
Assigning liability to UNR, however, sets a bad precedent,
according to the defense. Shevorksi argued that the university
had no role in approving the burn, drawing up the plans for it or
approving its staffing.
More: Little Valley Burn crews left smoldering site amid heavy
“Did they sign the burn plan? No. Did they draw the control lines?
No. Did they pick the men (to staff the burn)? No,” Shevorski said.
“There’s no basis to hold UNR liable for something they did not
Shevorski also stressed that no one is more heartbroken about
the Little Valley Fire than NDF and the people who worked on the
burn. Seeing the damage caused by the fire has essentially
“crippled” the agency and the people involved in the burn,
While mistakes were made and the burn was not perfect,
however, it does not rise to the standard of gross negligence,
Jeanney begged to differ, saying burn officials did not follow their
“For two years, these people have been living without their
homes,” Jeanney said. “Some lost 60 years worth of memories.
They just want (NDF) to accept responsibility for what they did,
for breaking their own rules.”
(Read this story in the Reno Gazette Journal Here)