Part 1: The Need For & Barriers to Prescribed Fire
There is no time to waste in the race to ensure that our lands and watersheds are resilient, healthy, and productive and to mitigate the increasing risk that wildfires pose to many communities. In 2015, a joint study by the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy found that 9.4 million acres of forestland in Oregon and Washington were in
Prescribed Fire Perspectives
immediate need of thinning, followed by prescribed burning in forests that were historically maintained by frequent low- or mixed-severity fires. Unfortunately, there are significant barriers to using prescribed fire in Oregon and other states — from a shortage of people with “ecological knowledge and operational expertise to implement prescribed fire across multijurisdictional landscape s” (Spencer et al., 2015) to a lack of insurance options for qualified burners.
The Extension Foundation and OSU’s Extension Service partnered with “Trust In Food” (a Farm Journal Initiative) to conduct research that provided qualitative and quantitative insights into three goals:
G ain insight into the community’s perceptions of fire and prescribed burning.
U nderstand the community’s knowledge related to fire and prescribed burning.
Conduct a needs assessment to improve the delivery of events, courses, and resources.
The geographic focus of the survey was the entire state of Oregon. The audience was identified using contacts within the Farm Journal database, which is composed mainly of individuals who have a pre-existing connection to agriculture in general. One hundred sixty-eight individuals completed the survey, giving us a response rate of 1.99%. Seventy-seven percent were landowners, and 21% work in land management. The overall conclusion was that public and private land managers agree that prescribed burning is an effective and economical way to improve the health of ecosystems and reduce the threat of wildfires. They also agree that land managers need to be trained and certified to manage these fires. Nearly all (99%) know that when properly managed, fires provide environmental and economic benefits.
THE GROSS NEGLIGENCE STANDARD
Perhaps the most significant barrier to using prescribed fire is the belief that it’s more dangerous than it is. Studies show that the rate of prescribed fire escapes is low and that most escapes are small and result in no injuries, damages, or insurance claims (Weir et al., 2020). Still, many states have a “simple negligence” standard that doesn’t give landowners much legal protection if a fire does escape.
Although the legal language varies from state to state, the standard basically means that if a landowner sets a prescribed fire and doesn’t practice “reasonable care”— or fails to do something that a reasonable person in a similar circumstance would do — they can be held legally responsible for property damage from the escaped fire. This is true even if the landowner or person conducting the burn did not willfully allow or cause the fire to escape.
A gross negligence standard would give prescribed fire burners more protection, wrote Lenya Quinn- Davidson (UC ANR) in her Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network blog post on March 25, 2021:
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