USA — SALT LAKE CITY — Whenever a wildland fire ignites, state officials respond. But responding costs money, and sometimes a lot of it, so this legislative session lawmakers have passed a bill that would make more people who start fires responsible for the cost of fighting them.
Senate Bill 38 is sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, and would make “a person liable for the cost of suppressing a wildland fire that is negligently, recklessly or intentionally caused or spread by that person.” In other words, people who start fires on purpose or by being careless will have to foot the bill for fighting them.
Dayton said the bill has already cleared both the House and the Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Once signed, the law will go into effect in June.
The bill is the result of collaboration between Dayton and Dick Buehler, director of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. According to Buehler, a similar law has already existed for some time. But the language of the law was unclear, Buehler added, saying that some people believed it only applied to state lands.
“We wanted it to apply to all land where a fire is started negligently,” Buehler said.
As a result, SB 38 includes wildfires that burn on state, federal and private land.
Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, sponsored the bill in the Utah House of Representatives. Noel said that he has been involved in fire fighting for two decades and that the bill should make it easier for officials to recover the sometimes substantial costs incurred combating wildfires.
“It kind of beefs it up a little bit,” Noel said. “It makes it easier to prosecute.”
Buehler said that each fire will be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine if it was started negligently. Buehler speculated that a driver whose well-maintained car threw up a rock that sparked a fire likely would not have to pay for fighting the blaze. On the other hand, he added, a person shooting guns or fireworks near dry grass would stand a better chance of footing the bill for fighting resulting fires.
In Utah County, officials typically fight several wildland fires each season. In August, for example, target shooters ignited the Chaparral Fire near mile marker 20 on State Road 68. The fire burned at least 1,200 acres and spread through both private and government land. That same month, crews in Utah County also fought smaller blazes that also were likely caused by people.
In September, the Broad Hollow Fire burned more than 40 acres on West Mountain before Bureau of Land Management crews completely doused the flames. Officials said the fire may have been caused by people using West Mountain for shooting and target practice. Crews from the BLM and local fire agencies also fought a pair of human-caused blazes near Saratoga Springs in July, which burned at least 17 acres. In August, BLM spokeswoman Erin Darboven said target shooting is the most common way for people to accidentally start fires.
SB 38 would unambiguously give officials the ability to recoup the cost of fighting similar fires resulting from carelessness, no matter what type of land they burn.
But Noel added that he hopes the new law also motivates people to be a little bit smarter and a little more careful. The best solution of all is not having to fight the fires in the first place.
“Hopefully the impact is that people use a little more common sense when they start fire,” Noel said. “Know you’re surroundings. Be aware of your neighbor’s property.”