Casper Fire Chief Kenneth King announced his retirement Wednesday, hours after apologizing for sending an email asking an investigator to delete “bad parts” from video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire.
King will step down Jan. 2, 2018, the city announced. City Manager V.H. McDonald received and accepted his retirement letter Wednesday.
The announcement came hours after King’s apology for the email.
“I deeply regret my insensitive words and lack of judgement,” King wrote in a letter released after noon Wednesday. “Words simply cannot express how truly sorry I am for the way my actions have offended and embarrassed members of the community and the City organization.”
King sent the email in October 2015, but it only became public when the Star-Tribune published a story about it on Oct. 9 — 10 days before King’s announcement.
Mayor Daniel Sandoval said he learned about the chief’s retirement Wednesday. He said he knew McDonald had been “wrestling with a decision” about the chief, but the city manager had not shared many details with him or the Casper City Council. Sandoval said he was “fairly sure” the chief’s retirement was connected to the email, but couldn’t say for certain.
“Maybe it was a mutual decision, maybe some pressure was applied,” Sandoval said.
The chief’s retirement was the best way to handle the controversy surrounding the email because it eases the transition between chiefs, the mayor said.
“I believe the thinking was that if you just come right out and fire the head of the department, it leaves that department in disarray,” he said. “And that’s not something you do with a department that is a matter of public safety.”
King has been fire chief since July 2013 and has worked in the department since 1980. The process to find King’s replacement will begin immediately, according to a city announcement.
“Chief King has long been dedicated and committed to fire service and the community,” McDonald said in the release. “I appreciate Chief King’s earlier apology to the community and believe it to be sincerely heartfelt.”
King sent the email to fire inspector Devin Garvin on Oct. 14, 2015, as crews were still working to extinguish the Cole Creek Fire. The blaze had begun three days earlier when embers from burning wood chips escaped the city landfill and ignited the nearby prairie. The flames spread into rural Evansville, destroying 14 homes and charring about 10,000 acres.
At the time, Garvin was helping collect evidence for the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and the state fire marshal’s office.
“Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?” King wrote in the email.
The city turned over the email along with more than 1,000 others as part of Star-Tribune public records requests made this spring and summer.
In an interview with the Star-Tribune this summer, King said the email was a joke.
“It was a joke, and it was a bad joke,” King said this summer. “And it was just between me and Devin to try to make light. I just got done telling him where some evidence was and then I just answered him. There was no thinking.”
In his letter Wednesday, King called the email inappropriate.
“While I cannot take it back, I can assure you that this scar will guide my future actions as I strive to serve the community with the highest degree of professionalism and commitment,” King wrote in his letter.
Tammy Clark, who lost her home and multiple animals in the fire, said she thought the apology was hollow and late.
“It happened because he was caught, not because he feels it with his soul,” she said.
Clark said she wants to see the chief back up his words with action.
“Has he been out here to help?” she asked. “Has he stopped at any of these houses and asked if we need help?”
City officials have declined on multiple occasions to say whether they had investigated King’s conduct or whether he had faced any disciplinary action, referring to city policy that bars them from discussing personnel matters.
Speaking before the retirement announcement, McDonald declined to answer when asked if he personally had anything to say to those who are frustrated with the way the city handled the fire or to those who lost their homes and say they feel forgotten by city.
“The issue is under litigation, so I have no comment,” he said.
At least 24 claims related to the fire have been filed against the city, totaling about $1.7 million, city spokeswoman Tanya Johnson previously told the Star-Tribune. The city handed over the claims to its insurer, the Wyoming Association of Risk Management. State law caps the city’s liability at $500,000, though losses are estimated to rise into the millions.
Sandoval said he understands the frustration the fire’s victims have with the city but said the city does not have the power to change the limit.
“I understand their frustration because the claims they have are so far in excess of the $500,000 cap — that’s a terrible disadvantage,” he said.
“All the bureaucracy can do is dole out disappointment,” he said.
Victims of the fire have until Oct. 10, 2017, to file claims as well as lawsuits.
Almost a month after the fire, Tracy Belser — who was then support services director and is now an assistant city manager — sent an email to several city officials and asked that they stop using email to discuss the fire.
Belser did not offer an explanation for the decision in her email but later told the Star-Tribune it was meant to encourage better communication and not an attempt to keep the emails out of the public record.
Emails from city accounts are considered public record and can be viewed by anyone who requests them, including journalists and attorneys.