A Drummond-area ranching family has won a $730,000 judgment against the state of Montana after a jury agreed that backfires set during the 2000 Ryan Gulch fire negligently ruined much of their ranch.

“I hope it will make the state think twice about these operations,” attorney Quentin Rhoades said after the Granite County jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday. Rhoades represented Fred and Joan Weaver and their daughter, Vickie Weaver.

Although the state was the defendant, much of the fire crew came from Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast under a federal interagency management team. Rhoades said the evidence indicated the crew appeared unaccustomed to working in windy mountainous terrain.

The state’s attorney, Robert Sheridan, was not available for comment on Thursday. Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokeswoman Paula Short said the agency could not respond to ongoing litigation.

Witnesses at the scene reported firefighters setting “backfires,” where one blaze is used to divert or control another. They are different from “burnouts,” where firefighters ignite the green foliage between their defensive fire line and the flame front to deprive a forest fire of fuel.

Rhoades said the state failed to keep many documents that purportedly explained the decisions to use backfires at Ryan Gulch.

“The state said we saved structures, the power line, the highway and the railroad with backfires,” Rhoades said. “Our argument was it would have been a lot easier to save that stuff if you hadn’t gone around lighting fires everywhere. They said they had plans to light fires eight or nine days in row, but that was the documentation that was missing. The jurors found that particularly troubling.”

The Ryan Gulch fire was one of dozens raging through August 2000. At the time, bigger blazes threatening homes and communities in the Bitterroot Valley had priority for firefighters and equipment. Ryan Gulch blackened 2,000 acres on its first day, and went on to blacken about 27 square miles in the mountains and pastures around Drummond.

That included 900 acres belonging to the Weavers. In 2000, Fred Weaver protested at community meetings that fire crews ruined much of his range and the safety zones for his cattle with backfires.

He filed suit against the state in 2003, but the case did not progress for nearly seven years. It finally came to an eight-day trial before Granite County District Judge Ray Dayton in Philipsburg that concluded on Wednesday.

Rhoades said the jury deliberated for about four hours before returning its verdict. Although the ranch allegedly incurred $1.4 million in damage from the fire, the jury awarded the Weavers $150,000 for loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance for mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire.

“I believe this outcome is unprecedented in Montana history,” Rhoades said. “I don’t think there’s been a verdict against the state for negligent forest firefighting. There haven’t been many verdicts on that anywhere.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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