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California lawmakers clear path for more private prescribed burns

A newly-passed bill in the California state Legislature would increase legal protections for private entities setting controlled fires, paving the way for more prescribed burns as a wildfire suppression tool.

The bill passed the Senate and Assembly on Thursday and Wednesday, respectively, by unanimous bipartisan votes and now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Prescribed burns can break down potential wildfire fuel – such as downed trees – and reduce the spread of wildfires. Professionals setting prescribed burns – called “burn bosses” – can be held liable if the fire they set gets out of control and causes unintentional harm or requires firefighters to intervene. Under current law, these burn bosses are held to the standard of simple negligence – whether they use an ordinary level of care.

Senate Bill 332, introduced by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and co-authored by Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, raises the burden to gross negligence – an extreme lack of care.

In a statement, Dodd said the concern about being held liable for the costs of suppressing a prescribed burn has been a major obstacle in its use as a tool for combatting wildfires, but that the strategy is one of the most cost-effective ways to manage wildfires. Dodd said the bill is supported by a “broad coalition” that includes ranchers, conservationists and tribal governments.

Dodd added that prescribed burns have rarely led to unintentional damage:

“The destructive wildfires that are now threatening our state are a painful reminder that we must do all we can to reduce fuels in our parched forests and wildlands. … Controlled burning is a valuable tool in addressing this problem.”

The bill was opposed by the Consumer Attorneys of California, Personal Insurance Federation of California and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, who worried the heightened protections would erode accountability and potentially result in unintentional wildfires.

The organizations wrote in a letter to Dodd and Wood this March:

“We believe it is poor policy to lessen the legal accountability standard of professionals doing one of the most dangerous things one can do in California — start a wildfire. … The consequences of negligent conduct in California based on the horrendous fire tornadoes and quick spread we have seen cannot be underestimated.”

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