Officials warn: Season transition harbors fire risks and liability<BR>
- Bill Sheehy
- Central Oregonian - News
>Summer fires can result in more losses than what goes up in smoke, warns Oregon Department of ForestryAs summer gets closer, and the days grow longer and temperatures rise, many Oregonians become, or should become, mindful of fire danger. However, in actuality, few consider the risk this time of year.
Several recent wildfires in various parts of the state should serve as a reminder that the seasonal transition can pose a fire risk as well. Most of the fires were debris burns that escaped.
Cool nights and grass wet with dew in the morning belie the true hazards of spring burning.
"In Oregon forest fuels dry out quickly in the early season," Oregon Department of Forestry's (ODF) Pete Norkeveck said, "particularly the fine fuels such as grasses that can carry a fire rapidly over a large area."
The legal services coordinator for ODF's Protection from Fire program said an escaped fire could turn into an expensive mistake if liability is demonstrated. By law, the department is charged with recovering fire-suppression costs from anyone who causes an uncontrolled fire through a faulted action. The damages can range from a few hundred dollars to millions, depending on the fire-fighting resources required to put out the fire.
Fire-liability claims are not considered fines or civil penalties. The recovered funds help hold down the cost of fire protection for forest landowners.
"When we pursue a liability claim, essentially we are representing landowners who are paying fire-patrol assessments," he said, "because when we recover those monies, they are directly re-deposited back into the local fire-fighting funds that those landowners paid for to begin with."
The best way to avoid a costly liability claim is to take basic precautions with debris burns. It starts with a phone call.
"If you are planning to conduct a burn, contact your local Department of Forestry office for the necessary permits and advice on how to do it safely," Norkeveck said.
The same basic rules hold for debris burns, campfires and other outdoor fires:
1. Check with the Oregon Department of Forestry to learn if fires are allowed.
2. Before starting a fire, establish a firebreak around the site by clearing away vegetation and combustible material.
3. Have fire tools and water at hand.
4. Attend the fire at all times until it is completely extinguished.
In Oregon, adults are responsible not only for their own actions with fire but their children's as well. When a person under the age of 18 causes a fire, the parents are strictly liable up to $5,000. If the child's actions were willful or reckless, the liability may increase to $7,500. Juvenile liability cases range from youngsters experimenting with matches to teens starting party bonfires.
"Ninety percent of human-caused fires have some preventable element involved," Norkeveck said.
In a typical year, Oregon has about 1,200 wildland fires. Fifteen to 20 percent of the human-caused fires result in liability cases. The take-home message is, most of these destructive blazes - and the attendant costly damage claims - could be avoided by exercising reasonable care and following the basic rules of fire safety.