Family files wrongful death lawsuit against feds over burn scar flooding

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SANTA FE, N.M. — The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire was the largest and most destructive wildfire in New Mexico history. It burned more than 550 square miles and destroyed more than 900 structures.

It started in April 2022 after a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service grew out of control. The fire burned for months, and then, after the fire, residents faced disastrous flooding.

Now, a family is suing the U.S. government over the loss of their loved ones.

Chris Cummings, Jane Cummings, and Betty Lou Greenhaw were killed when flash floods hit the burn scar area near Las Vegas and swept their cabin away.

A wrongful death suit filed by the family states that the fire was caused by by the negligence of the U.S. Forest Service, and then the fire caused the loss of vegetation and soil integrity which then created that burn scar.

As a direct result of that negligence, their family members suffered a violent, painful, and gruesome death by drowning in a flash flood in the burn scar area.

After the deadly flood, KOB 4 asked a UNM law professor if she anticipated a lawsuit and what it takes to sue the federal government. At the time, Professor Carol Suzuki said the families may have a case, but there would be a lot to prove.

“It will be a challenge, trying to link all of these events,” Suzuki said. “Proving that this chain of events caused the deaths would be something that the families would need to prove of they bring wrongful death lawsuits.”

The lawsuit also states the U.S. Forest Service owed a duty to the public to use reasonable care and to follow mandated directives in the planning, monitoring and control of prescribed burns. It also says that the defendant was responsible for providing adequate warnings of the dangers of life-threatening flash flooding as a result of the burn scar of the wildfire.