LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A controlled grass fire that severely burned a man who was sleeping in a Nebraska field was set without the landowner’s permission, and authorities did not approve a permit for the blaze until afterward, according to testimony from a federal lawsuit.
Rushville Fire Chief Dwaine Sones acknowledged in a May 7 deposition obtained by The Associated Press that he “had a pretty good idea” of who owned the land before starting the fire but that he didn’t seek permission.
“We didn’t feel it necessary,” Sones said in the deposition. “I guess I didn’t ask the sheriff about that.”
The burn victim, Bryan Bluebird Jr., is suing the village of Rushville, its volunteer fire department, Sheridan County and the Sheridan County sheriff.
The incident happened in the heat of an unrelated legal battle between the Oglala Sioux Tribe, of which Bluebird is a member, and business owners in Whiteclay, a town of about a dozen residents that borders the Pine Ridge Indiana Reservation in South Dakota. Whiteclay’s four beer stores frequently sell to residents of Pine Ridge, which lifted its alcohol ban in August amid concerns that it has failed to stop rampant alcoholism on the reservation. The town is known as a hangout for Pine Ridge residents who sleep in abandoned buildings and along the streets.
Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins asked firefighters to start the controlled burn in the field after they had brought a fire on the northern edge of town under control, according to Sones’ testimony. Bluebird alleges that authorities failed to thoroughly search the field and did not sound their sirens before they started the blaze.
The trial is set to begin on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in North Platte. Bluebird’s attorney, Tom White, said he expects the case will go to trial, because his client’s previous settlement offers were rejected. Phone messages left Wednesday for Sones and his attorney, Jeffrey Nix, were not immediately returned.
“There is a profound disagreement about the appropriate monetary compensation,” White said. “Mr. Bluebird doesn’t seem to be worth what most plaintiffs who went through something like this would be worth, in their eyes.”
In court papers, Nix said Robbins circled the field twice and saw no one on the premises. Firefighters burned the field in sections, and Bluebird _ who was trespassing _ didn’t respond until 30 or 40 minutes after they started, Nix said. Bluebird was so intoxicated that he likely was in a near-comatose state, despite the loud water-pump trunks and talking, Nix said.
“Had the plaintiff not been intoxicated, he would certainly have been able to stand up and reasonably move away from the fire to a safe location before he felt the flames on his body,” Nix wrote. “Thus, he failed to act reasonably under the circumstances and caused his injuries.”
Bluebird’s attorney acknowledged in court papers that the Pine Ridge native was intoxicated at the time.
The March 6, 2012, fire burned about 25 percent of Bluebird’s body, including his hands, face, left leg, lower back and abdomen. Bluebird spent 20 days in a burn unit in Greeley, Colo., and has undergone several surgeries and skin grafts, according to court documents. His doctors have recommended amputating two fingers on his left hand, and the U.S. Veterans Administration has paid nearly $236,000 to treat Bluebird’s injuries.
In court filings, Rushville and Sheridan County officials say they weren’t liable because they were acting within the scope of their duties. They also say Bluebird’s injuries were caused by his own negligence and that they had “implied permission” to start the fire, because its owner has long tolerated people going into the field.
Nebraska law requires local fire chiefs to approve an open-burn permit before a controlled fire is started, but Sones said he didn’t fill one out until after the fire. Nix argued that, as a volunteer fire chief, Sones was within his power.
“Is that standard procedure to burn it first and then fill this out?” White asked in the deposition.
“No,” Sones said. “I filled it out for my personal record.”
Sones said local authorities didn’t organize a search line to walk the field, but they drove a fire truck through part of it. Sones said he wasn’t aware that people often slept in the field.
After the fire was set, Sones drove a truck through a ditch along Highway 87 to watch the blaze, while one firefighter rode in back with the water supply and another walked the field with a drip torch. Sones said he saw movement in the grass but didn’t immediately realize it was a person.
“He kind of rolled as the fire got to him,” Sones said. “He set up and looked around. He looked at us. And I yelled at the guy in the back to put the water on _ put the grass out, put water on him, protect him.”
Sones said one firefighter who went into the flames and grabbed Bluebird suffered minor burns. Sones took a hose from the truck and started running cold water on Bluebird’s hands. Bluebird repeatedly said “I’m sorry” and thanked the firefighters for saving him, Sones said.
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