New California law makes it easier for private landowners to conduct prescribed burns

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Posted at 4:00 PM, Feb 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-09 20:37:30-05

A new California law is giving more control to private landowners and less liability risk when managing prescribed burns on their property.

The goal is to cut down on the catastrophic wildfires that have been burning in the Golden State year after year.

Local cattle rancher Jerry Williams says his family has done prescribed burning for almost 40 years.

“It’s opened up a lot of country here for the cattle, for the wildlife. We've seen a lot more native species coming back now,” Williams explained.

The Williams family, however, took a ten-year hiatus from setting these planned fires which Jerry says are important for maintaining the health of their land.

“It was expensive, you know, for one-day insurance and as more insurance companies now have been leaving California, it became almost impossible,” Williams added.

He says the liability risk was just too high until now.

The new law that went into effect on January 1, essentially takes a private citizen off the hook if their burn gets out of control as long as a basic set of conditions are met.

“The proof of liability has gone from you are guilty until proven innocent where now upon certification, you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bob Acquistapace, Santa Barbara County Range Improvement Association President. “Having the law in place really just helps us ease our nerves where there's an avenue to be able to safely, legally be able to help the community out.”

Since the mid-1950s, the Santa Barbara County Range Improvement Association has burned upwards of 8,000 acres a year.

They, too, took a decade-long hiatus due to regulations but they’re now back on track.

“There will be wildfires. They will be out of control and if we cannot do something to minimize that risk, there will be a lot more people injured and structures damaged, destroyed,” Acquistapace said.

Opponents of the new law have argued that reducing liability for fire disasters complicates the recovery process for wildfire victims.

The change in the law comes as a raging wildfire in the Big Sur area late last month was sparked by hot embers from a pile-burning operation.

The roughly 7,000-acre blaze forced the closure of Highway 1 for several days and threatened more than 200 structures, destroying one.

Meanwhile, more than 2.5 million acres burned across California last year alone.

Seven of the top 10 most destructive fires in California’s history have happened since 2015.

Controlled burns are meant to prevent these fires from causing irreparable harm.

“I would say from the position where I'm at, which is working with prescribed fire practitioners on the ground, that this new law is a really excellent first step towards what could be sort of a game-changing, sea change where you see a lot more prescribed fire and in particular, a private citizen-led prescribed fire,” said Matthew Shapero, University of California Cooperative Extension Livestock and Range Advisor.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California has 33 million acres of forest land. Sixty percent of it is publicly owned and the remaining 40 percent is owned privately.

For those private landowners like Williams, the recent shift in the law is setting the stage for him and others across the state to wield what some call the “good fire.”

“It’s made a huge difference for all of us and it's inspiring people to start doing ranch improvement again,” Williams said.

Anyone who constitutes gross negligence when it comes to burning will still be held responsible.

The new California law also affirms the indigenous right to cultural burns, lifting liability for that too.