September 2015 Bar Bulletin
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September 2015 Bar Bulletin

Setting Wildfires Can Burn You

By Joe Terrenzio


Every year tens of thousands of wildfires across the country burn millions of acres of forestland.1 The federal government spends well over $1 billion on fire suppression each year.2 Fire suppression routinely costs the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which has jurisdiction over 13 million acres of state-owned and private forest land, tens of millions of dollars.3

Though wildfires are a fundamental part of the natural forest cycle, about 85 percent of all Washington wildfires are caused by humans and of those about 52 percent are negligently or intentionally started.4

The costs and risks are increasingly important as fires become more frequent across Washington. The 2014 fire season was the worst on record, with the then-largest fire in the state's history, the Carlton Complex Fire, destroying more than 250,000 acres. The 2015 fire season may surpass last year's. As of August 16, 25 counties in Washington were at a high burn risk and the remaining 14 were at a very high/extreme burn risk, and major fires were threatening several communities.5

A statewide burn ban on DNR lands is in place through the end of September.6 So far the 2015 fire season has cost the state more than $35 million in suppression efforts, not including property damage.

DNR is required to "[i]nvestigate the origin and cause of all forest fires to determine whether either a criminal act or negligence by any person, firm or corporation caused the starting, spreading or existence of the fire."7 The stakes are also high in the courtroom, with civil and criminal penalties for setting forest fires codified in RCW ch. 76.04 and RCW ch. 9A.48.

Forest Protection & RCW Ch. 76.04

Forests and forest practices are broadly covered by RCW Title 76. Chapter 76.04 addresses forest protection. Any violation of Chapter 76.04 is a misdemeanor unless otherwise specified.8

Negligently starting a fire, allowing an extreme fire hazard and allowing forest debris that contributes to the spread of fire, all subject an individual to liability and damages for any reasonable expenses in fighting the fire.9 These expenses include investigation costs, reasonable attorneys' fees and taxable court costs.10 The State can also file a lien against the offending person's property for such expenses.11

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