Owning your own forested property is rewarding and offers enormous benefits – a source of income, a place to recreate, and a legacy to pass down through the generations, among others. But owning forestland carries great responsibility and potential liability, too. One such responsibility involves fire – preventing it, suppressing it, and managing your forest operations to be fire-safe. Here we explore the potential liability you face as a forestland owner.
Under Oregon law, forest landowners and operators are responsible to control and extinguish wildfires on the landowner’s land. The Oregon Department of Forestry or local forest protection association provides fire-fighting resources beyond those the landowner or operator can provide. The landowner’s fire protection responsibility is usually met by paying a forest patrol assessment to the local forest protection district. These assessments are commonly paid as part of your annual property tax payments.
Your responsibility as landowner goes beyond paying your annual assessments. Landowners must provide firefighting resources at the site of timber harvest, road construction, slash burning, and other forest operations. By law, the landowner/operator must make every reasonable effort to suppress a wildfire resulting from an operation. The landowner/operator must also:
- Obtain a Permit to Operate Power-Driven Machinery.
- Take all legally-required fire prevention measures, such as maintaining fire watch and the appropriate fire tools during fire season.
- Provide all available equipment and personnel under landowner/operator control to extinguish any fire resulting from an operation.
- Ensure personnel are trained and equipment is adequate to fight fire.
- Maintain readiness so the fire-fighting resources can be quickly brought to bear on a fire.
Compliance with these requirements dictates your level of liability in the event of a fire caused by an operation on your land. You may be faced with total liability or limited liability for fire fighting costs, depending on your level of compliance.
If the investigation determines that the landowner/operator did not follow the rules – such as meeting fire watch requirements or maintaining logging equipment in fire-safe condition – the landowner may receive the bill to pay all the costs of fighting the fire. This total liability can occur when:
- The origin or spread of the fire is the result of landowner/operator negligence, or A Notification of Operation was not submitted for the operation, or
- The landowner/operator fails to make every reasonable effort to extinguish the fire. If total liability is established, the landowner’s bill will include both “district costs” to pay for the resources provided by the local forest protection association (even though the landowner has already paid the annual assessment for those services), and the “extra costs” for any additional resources, such as contract crews or aircraft, brought in to fight the fire.
When an operation causes a fire, and the investigation determines that all applicable regulations were followed, the landowner’s liability for fire suppression costs is capped at $300,000. The landowner is not held responsible for any district costs, but may be billed for up to $300,000 of extra costs. In all cases, the landowner suffers the loss of timber and other resource damage caused by the fire.
Oregon’s law’s concerning fire and landowner responsibilities are complex. Contact your local Oregon Department of Forestry office or forest protection association for more information.