California is encouraging more use of fire to fight fire, such as when deliberately set burns were recently used to protect giant sequoias from a raging wildfire.
But sometimes what are known as prescribed fires themselves spread out of control, causing their own extensive damage.
A bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Wednesday adds legal protections for private landowners and those who manage the blazes by raising the legal standard for seeking wildfire suppression costs from simple negligence to gross negligence.
Such costs can include not only fighting the fire, but related rescues and investigations.
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Entities like Native American tribes and community fire safe councils must generally use professional, certified “burn bosses” or government forestry officers to plan and manage the controlled blazes. While government employees are generally already protected from liability, the new law makes it more difficult to sue private burn bosses.
The burns must be for wildfire hazard reduction, ecological maintenance and restoration, cultural burning, forest management or agriculture.
Opponents said the liability change leaves wildfire victims “with a more difficult and less efficient cost recovery process.”
Dodd called the measure "an important step toward protecting our state from the kinds of wildfires that have been so destructive over the past few years.”
California fires have burned more than 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers) so far in 2021, destroying more than 3,000 homes, commercial properties and other structures. Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. And the problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
The Karuk tribe, California's second-largest, was among supporters of the bill along with timber companies, ranchers and conservation groups.
“This is a great step towards revising California’s liability laws to make it easier to put prescribed fire and cultural burning on the ground," Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery said when lawmakers approved the bill. "In the past, it was nearly impossible to get insurance for burn bosses, which means fewer prescribed fires and more catastrophic wildfire.”
The tribe also supported a second omnibus measure previously approved by Newsom that among many other things “legally recognizes and defines cultural burning and cultural fire practitioner in state law for the first time,” Attebery said.
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The prescribed burn measure sailed through the Legislature without an opposing vote, over the objections of insurers and trial attorneys.
It makes no sense “to lessen the legal accountability standard of professionals doing one of the most dangerous things one can do in California — start a wildfire,” said a joint argument from the Consumer Attorneys of California, the Personal Insurance Federation of California, and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.