South Carolina Asked to Extend Immunity for Planned Fires

Nearly a year after the state’s worst wildfire, forest managers and landowners have asked legislators to give them more protection from lawsuits when they intentionally set fires to reduce debris that could fuel wildfires and inadvertently damage property.

Forestry experts told a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting last week that as long as they followed state guidelines and other practices, they didn’t want to be subject to lawsuits unless they were grossly negligent.

But under the measure the panel approved and sent to the full Judiciary Committee, they’ll be presumed not to have acted negligently, but someone bringing a lawsuit can challenge that.

“I think its better than what you’ve got now,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Harrison, R-Columbia. People who have property damage need to be protected, too, he said.

Even that change should help, said Joel Felder, South Carolina’s deputy state forester. There are 13 million acres of timberland in the state and about 1 million acres a year should have prescribed burns to cut down on the chances of wildfires or their intensity when they occur. For now, only about 440,000 acres yearly are burned, partly because of lawsuit fears.

But there’s no cure-all because some areas are simply too developed to safely burn, Felder said.

Georgia and Florida now have laws that offer more protection from lawsuits, said Tom Dooley, state fire manager for The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina.

“Our primary tool for managing our lands is prescribed fires,” Dooley said. “If we don’t burn it when we chose, then it’s going to burn when it wants to burn.”