The Colorado Senate this week is scheduled to begin debating revised policies for prescribed fire on state forest lands.
The impetus for the revision is the Lower North Fork Fire. It began as a plan to burn 35 acres in order to forestall larger wildfires that could destabilize soil in the watershed above Denver Waters reservoirs. An ember apparently blew across the fireline, three people died in the fire, and 23 homes and more than 4,000 acres ultimately burned.
In the aftermath of the Lower North Fork Fire, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper placed a moratorium on prescribed burns by state agencies, and the state government no longer claims immunity from lawsuits over such fires when they grow out of control. Southwest Colorados own Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, has done good and hard work on the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission, and Senate Bill 13-083 is one result of that effort.
In 2002, the Cerro Grande Fire in northern New Mexico, also an out-of-control prescribed fire (this time within a national monument, not on state land) burned 40,000 acres and destroyed 250 homes in Los Alamos, the site of national laboratories for nuclear research. According to news reports, the Park Service responded by instituting new rules, including more extensive review of burn plans.
A frequent accusation as the Lower North Fork Fire burned was that state foresters had not checked the weather forecast. Colorados spring weather is notoriously fickle, a fact fire managers know better than most people, but the broader truth behind that complaint is that every time a prescribed fire blows up, it is because someone misjudged the risk it posed.
A fair question, then, is whether it is possible, in Colorados drought- and beetle-stricken forests, to know enough to make the right judgment.
The threat is certainly not limited to fires lit and managed by government personnel. Every year, private controlled burns go wrong, endangering property and lives, especially the lives of firefighters. Almost none of those fires was begun carelessly. The wind changed, the weather report turned out to have been wrong or not relevant to the specific location, the fuels were drier or more explosive than expected, somebody stepped away or turned away any number of things can go wrong, and when the wildlands are as dry as they have been in recent years, a small error in judgment can be quickly amplified into a loss of life.
It makes sense, then, that the state should establish clear responsibilities for prescribed burns, especially on public lands. There is nothing in the bill that would restrict the way private landowners use fire on their own lands, but landowners who are certified to burn under the states program, or who hire someone who is, would not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions made in good faith resulting in damage or injury caused by fire or smoke from prescribed burns they conduct on their own property and in compliance with applicable state laws and local ordinances, unless their actions are willfully and grossly negligent.
Linking training and good practices with reduced liability is a good start by the state. Locally, as the burn season begins, the community can emphasize the strong possibility that controlled burns will not remain controlled and encourage the training and techniques that will reduce the threat. No fire will ever be perfectly safe, but we can do better than simply shrugging when another one roars past its fireline.