Prescribed fire

Firefighters use drip torches to ignite slash piles during a prescribed burn.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom this fall signed into law three major bills intended to promote more prescribed burning.

Prescribed fire — also called "controlled," "Rx" or "good" fire — is intentional use of fire to clear vegetation on the landscape that could otherwise become fuel for wildfires.

Ecologists and others have long said that more "good fire" is needed to prevent out-of-control wildfires, but California's legal framework for decades has made prescribed burns difficult to conduct.

Now, with Newsom's signing of the three major bills, that could change.

The measures were Senate Bill 332, which adds legal protections for those who conduct prescribed burns for public benefit, Assembly Bill 642, which establishes a prescribed fire training center, and Senate Bill 170, which contained a $20 million line item to create a prescribed fire claims fund.

When Lenya Quinn-Davidson, founder and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, first heard Newsom had signed SB 332 into law Oct. 6, she said she was "elated."

"I am so excited," said Quinn-Davidson, who helped create the bill with Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who sponsored it.

SB 332 was crafted to give people doing prescribed burns more legal protections.

The law limits liability for private landowners and public agencies that conduct prescribed fires under specific conditions.

Before the bill's passage, if a prescribed fire escaped its intended boundaries, the burner would be responsible for paying fire suppression costs — if, for example, Cal Fire had to help put out flames.

Even though nationwide data show prescribed fires escape only 1% of the time, fear of being personally liable if something goes wrong has deterred many burn bosses from doing their work.

Under the new law, unless a burner is grossly negligent, they are no longer responsible for paying fire suppression costs.

Attorneys and insurance organizations, including the Personal Insurance Federation of California, opposed an earlier version of the bill that also would have reduced liability for burners in the case of actual damages to private property such as homes burned down.

But legislators amended the bill so that burners would be responsible if they burned down structures like homes but would not be responsible for fire suppression costs.

After the bill was amended, insurers and trial attorneys no longer opposed it.

"(Personal Insurance Federation of California) withdrew opposition and now supports the bill," said Melissa O'Toole, PIFC's legislative and communications manager.

The bill in its final form had support from groups across a wide spectrum, including the California Cattlemen's Association, the Karuk Tribe and Defenders of Wildlife.

"Those are groups you would never expect to work together," said Quinn-Davidson.

The measure sailed through the Legislature without an opposing vote.

SB 332's passage was preceded by another, complementary bill, AB 642, which Newsom signed at the end of September. This law requires the state fire marshal to develop a prescribed fire training center to train a new force of prescribed burners.

Finally, Newsom signed SB 170 into law, a budget bill including $20 million to set up a claims fund for prescribed fire. Although prescribed fire rarely escapes, this state-run insurance fund exists to cover any possible escapes.

"In the past, it was nearly impossible to get insurance for burn bosses, which means fewer prescribed fires and more catastrophic wildfire," Karuk Chairman Russell "Buster" Attebery told the Associated Press, calling the legislation "a great step."

Prescribed fire advocates say there's still work to be done. Quinn-Davidson, for example, said she'd like to see lawmakers "revisit air quality laws" to promote more burn days and less bureaucracy.

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