Up in flames

Marty Belshe, a wheat farmer in Sherman County, Ore., uses a tractor and disc plow to create a fire break around one of his fields in anticipation of the Substation Fire that burned 78,425 acres in July. A new state law protects farmers and others who fight wildfires from incurring liability.

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature has passed a bill to protect farmers and ranchers from liability while fighting dangerous wildfires, such as the 2018 Substation fire in Wasco and Sherman counties.

Senate Bill 290 is similar to other Good Samaritan laws that encourage bystanders to assist people in emergencies without worrying about being sued if something goes wrong.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, sponsored SB 290, which passed both the House and Senate unanimously. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill during a ceremony on June 18 with members of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Hansell said the bill was inspired by the deadly Substation fire that torched 78,425 acres of dry wheat fields and grasslands last year in north-central Oregon.

Wheat farmers were among the first to arrive on scene, using tractors and disc plows to dig wide firebreaks around homes and communities. If not for their quick response, Hansell said the fire might have devastated the nearby small cities of Moro and Grass Valley, similar to Paradise, Calif.

"Farmers have been doing this ever since we began raising wheat," said Hansell, whose family runs a wheat farm in Umatilla County.

One farmer, 64-year-old John Ruby, died trying to protect his neighbor's home from the fire. Hansell said the tragedy raised concerns about potential liability for farmers and residents in a similar situation.

That is what SB 290 seeks to address. It states that a person who voluntarily joins the effort will not be held civilly liable for injury resulting from the "good faith performance" of firefighting activities. Professionally trained firefighters are not covered by the legislation.

Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said he is pleased with the bill to prevent farmers from being sued for trying to do the right thing.

"Anytime you're talking about limiting liability for somebody who does something out on the landscape, or responds to an accident, we want to protect them if they're acting in good faith," Rowe said.

Without wheat farmers on the front lines, Rowe said the Substation fire probably would have been worse.

"There were places where farmers were able to disc lines, slow things down and get some equipment in front of the fire that actually helped slow the spread," Rowe said. "Farmers bring equipment and skills to the party that some of our rural (fire) districts just don't have."

The new law will become effective on Jan. 1, 2020.

"This is a great, positive bill for rural Oregon," Hansell said.

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