Lawsuit challenges state’s firefighting commitment | RecordCourier.com

Lawsuit challenges state’s firefighting commitment

by Kurt Hildebrand

A lawsuit filed by a former Nevada Division of Forestry helicopter pilot claims that state and federal officials conspired to pull Nevada out of the business of fighting fires from the air.

Gardnerville resident Glenn Marr, 59, alleges in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed last summer that State Forester Peter Anderson decided to improve working relations between the state and federal government when he was hired in 2004.

According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Marr claims that part of that working relationship was to accommodate the federal agencies’ desire to take over control of air operations of the Division of Forestry.

Marr is suing the state claiming his firing violated his first amendment right to free speech.

The complaint alleges that in 2005, the state began reducing the number of pilots and the number of hours flown during fire season.

Marr said he complained to state forestry officials Anderson, Robert Ashworth, Mike Dondero, and Peter Cannizarro both directly and through chief pilot Pat Ross that the limitations on air operations were a danger to natural resources, lives, safety and property of residents in the path of wildfires.

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However, firefighting helicopters were used in fires in the Sierra and in southern Douglas County during the last fire season.

According to the Nevada Division of Forestry’s annual report on the 2006 fire season, state mechanics refurbished a third excess military helicopter and two helicopters were upgraded with new engines during the year. The division’s Helitack program passed forest service and BLM safety reviews and the state recently hired a coordinator for their air program.

The state reported it mobilized National Guard helicopters for numerous fires throughout northern and western Nevada during times when there was a national shortage in helicopters.

In his lawsuit, Marr said his complaints did not disrupt the department or the activities of his fellow employees. Marr continued his complaints from February through August 2005. He also contacted Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, regarding the issue.

The issue that sparked Marr’s firing stemmed from a second inspection of state forestry aircraft by a second federal agency in two months.

According to the complaint, in May 2005 the U.S. Forest Service conducted state aircraft inspections and approved the state aircraft for interagency missions, including firefighting.

The next month, on June 27, 2005, another inspection was ordered for certification by the Bureau of Land Management. Marr asked Bureau of Land Management employee Joseph Wulfkuhle why the second inspection was required. Wulfkuhle responded it was a new BLM policy, but then when asked to produce the policy, said someone at the BLM had requested the inspections due to past problems, but did not specify what those problems were.

Marr was placed on administrative leave with pay the next day pending an investigation into alleged violence in his interaction with Wulfkuhle the previous day. Marr claims the accusation was designed to terminate him and that the second inspection was done in an effort to generate a confrontation between Marr and Wulfkuhle.

According to the lawsuit, on June 29, 2005, Anderson issued a secret memo suspending all flight operations by the Nevada Division of Forestry.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Alan Biaggi held a meeting at which Marr’s firing was allegedly discussed.

Marr was terminated based on an Oct. 10 recommendation, which listed a confrontation with Wulfkuhle, attendance at training a year before in Florida and the accuracy of an annual flight hour certification.

The job description for Marr’s position was rewritten and advertised on Feb. 14, 2006, with a drop in pay grade, a 20 percent salary cut and making the position a seasonal one.

Marr is seeking reinstatement and full back pay and benefits and punitive damages. He was being paid $58,896 a year.

He also has a case filed Sept. 20, 2006, in Douglas County District Court to appeal a state personnel commission hearing officer decision that his firing was justified.

According to the Nevada Division of Forestry’s annual report on the 2006 fire season, state mechanics refurbished a third excess military helicopter and two helicopters were upgraded with new engines during the year.

According to the Web site, the division’s Helitack program passed Forest Service and BLM safety review and the state recently hired a coordinator for their air program.