updated 12/20/2006 4:58:54 PM ET 2006-12-20T21:58:54

The former boss of a government firefighting crew was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters during a 2001 blaze, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Prosecutors said Ellreese N. Daniels was grossly negligent in failing to order his men out of harm’s way as flames advanced on them.

He was also charged with lying to investigators in the aftermath of the tragedy, which took place near Winthrop in July 2001.

Daniels was not immediately arrested. He was scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 4.

His attorney, Tina Hunt, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The four firefighters were trapped in the Chewuch River Canyon with 10 other firefighters and two campers. The others were uninjured, but the four firefighters died when the blaze swept over them as they set up their fire shelters on a rocky slope.

String of errors cited
A Forest Service investigation concluded that fire bosses had ignored numerous signs of danger, repeatedly underestimated the fire and allowed their only escape route from the dead-end canyon to be cut off.

The false statements Daniels allegedly made involved whether he contacted fire engine crews when they arrived at the scene, whether he ordered the firefighters to come down from the slope and whether he told a Forest Service employee to take the two civilians into her emergency shelter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins said.

Daniels was among nine employees reassigned after the fire, while others quit or retired. Daniels works for the Forest Service in East Wenatchee during the summer but is no longer a fire boss.

Since the blaze, the Forest Service and other wildland firefighting agencies have established minimum requirements for training and experience. The Forest Service also has worked with OSHA to re-examine safety and training policies.

A federal law passed after the deaths now requires an outside investigation of any wildland firefighting deaths.

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