First, let me join the entire Panhandle in expressing our sympathy to the victims of the Eastpoint fire which was the result of a “controlled” burn by a company hired by Florida’s Wildlife Commission. The Florida Agriculture Commissioner, Adam Putnam (current candidate for governor), stated that after investigation, the escaped fire which destroyed 36 homes and many people’s livelihoods, was indeed the result of a prescribed burn nearby.
The Department of Agriculture along with the Division of Forestry are responsible for the rule-making process regarding prescribed burning. The importance of controlled burns to reduce excess fuel which if left to accumulate can lead to even more devastating wildfires is undeniable. One only has to look at the constant fires out west right now—destroying thousands of miles of land and homes to understand this need. Florida had a terrible drought in 1998 and had raging wildfires ourselves which burnt over 500,000 acres, and which led to a revision of the Prescribed Burning Act in 1999 to encourage more controlled burns in the State.
The main modification the law of 1999 made, was to reduce liability to the agents in charge of burns. In the 1999 Act, the level of negligence was changed from general negligence to gross negligence.
What does this mean to those who are the victims of fires that have escaped from a prescribed burn?
According to the Blacks Law Dictionary: gross negligence is “a failure to use even the slightest amount of care in a way that shows recklessness or willful disregard for the safety of others.”
It is obviously almost impossible under this definition to legally prove gross negligence—so will the burn company’s insurance even pay? Why did Florida decide the gross negligence clause was O.K. to put into law? (We are one of less than a half dozen States that have such a low standard of responsibility for prescribed fires.)
Well, apparently the legislators of 1999 along with the Department of Agriculture and Division of Forestry decided that to meet the goal of increasing controlled burns they should reduce liability to controlled burners and instead require that they attend specialized training to become certified and require them to file detailed plans for burns. They determined this was better overall for public safety than trying to hold untrained persons civilly liable for any escaped fires.
As part of the rules instituted in 1999, a Certified Prescribed Burn Manager must be present from “ignition to completion of the prescribed burn.”
My question is this: what is the “completion” of a prescribed burn?
I have been hiking a dozen times in the Panhandle and come across acres of smoldering brush with not a soul around—no State agents, no burn company workers, no landowners, no firefighters, nobody… I also have to wonder what exactly the requirements are in those burn plans that must be submitted.
Are they really to determine the safety to surrounding communities, or to cover butts if something goes wrong? Has it become a situation where if all the bureaucratic red-tape is met, nobody is responsible for anything? Have we become complacent about this vital but very hazardous management tool?
I don’t know how many times I’ve driven by a prescribed burn with 20-30 mph winds blowing, so strong I wouldn’t even light a fire in my backyard—and again not a soul in sight.
Allegedly, this particular fire was started during a period when this Eastpoint neighborhood had experienced very high temperatures and very low rainfall for many days and was in a “high fire risk” category. Maybe these required burn plans should include surrounding inhabited regions, not just the area of the actual burn.
I advocate three changes our representatives and the agencies responsible for prescribed burning should make as a result of this tragedy.
1) If we are to continue to have “gross negligence” rules to encourage burns and protect the burn companies from liability, we need to strengthen the requirements to have people on the ground checking conditions and monitoring the entire area days before and after a burn if there are inhabited zones close by. Yes, that might raise costs, but maybe higher costs are needed to provide safety.
2) Similar to the “if you see something, say something” campaign for terrorism, we should institute a phone number to call and a public education campaign to encourage people to call it if they are concerned about any burn they see, especially if it is unattended. Then local FWC, forestry agents, firefighters, or law enforcement can be informed to check it out. I think many of us are so used to burns that we just walk or drive by figuring somebody must be watching it.
3) If we are to protect certified burners from liability, shouldn’t the State assume that liability? Eastpoint was not an “act of God” it was an “act of Florida” and we should make it right.
Port St. Joe