Policy Brief: Oregon’s Prescribed Fire Liability Laws

Key Points:

  • There is an important purpose and need for the use of prescribed fire across the West to mitigate the uncharacteristic, high severity wildfires that are occurring due to hundreds of years of fire suppression.
  • Stringent liability laws on standards of care are continuously cited as a key challenge and barrier to the implementation of prescribed fire in forest restoration projects, especially in projects that require cross boundary, multi-ownership planning and implementation.
  • In response to increased wildfire risks affecting all Oregonians, Governor Brown signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response in January 2019. The Council is tasked with reviewing Oregon’s current model for wildfire prevention, preparedness and response, and analyzing the sustainability of the current model to provide recommendations to strengthen, improve, or replace existing systems.
  • This brief offers policy recommendations to change Oregon’s tort law from simple negligence to gross negligence and to act on existing legislation to develop a statewide burn manager certification program.

Executive Summary

Prescribed fire is an important tool used by land managers, private landowners, and Native American communities in order to achieve land management goals (Kolden 2019). This practice, along with thinning and other fuels reduction techniques is integral to mitigate the effect of uncharacteristic wildfire severity across many landscapes in the West. The behavior of any fire is dependent on fuels, weather, and topography, and when trained teams are able to assess these characteristics along with risk factors, prescribed fire can be an achievable and safe land management practice.

There is a huge need for the use of prescribed fire across the West to mitigate the uncharacteristic, high severity wildfires that are occurring due to hundreds of years of fire suppression. While there are a diversity of challenges and barriers to the implementation of prescribed fire, the issue of liability and state laws on standards of care are continuously cited as a key challenge, especially in projects that require cross boundary, multi-ownership planning and implementation (Schultz et al. 2018). Broadly speaking, many people cite general risk aversion as an important factor in willingness to conduct prescribed fires, with agency willingness being influenced by political concerns (Schultz et al. 2018). On a local, landowner level, Oregon’s liability laws are generally regarded as being too strict to facilitate the amount of landscape scale restoration that is necessary to achieve the wildfire mitigation goals set out by the Governor’s Council on Wildfire.

This policy brief examines Oregon’s liability laws and provide recommendations of establishing gross negligence as the standard of care for prescribed fire liability and by setting standards for prescribed burn implementation through a statewide Burn Manager Certification Program. This brief is intended to be useful to legislators, members of the public, and partnerships working in the realm of prescribed fire such as the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council, the Klamath Lake Forest Health Partnership, and forest collaboratives. This policy brief is part of an overall Master’s project to create literature that will be used in Oregon’s next legislative session, and further research recommendations will also be provided.

Current Policy Critiques:

Current liability laws in Oregon decrease the incentive and therefore the implementation of an incredibly important management tool for not only healthy ecosystems, but also community and firefighter safety. The effectiveness in managing risk within these different liability laws depends on who bears the costs and what agencies or landscapes benefit, and the roles of these partners in being able to reduce risk. Liability law does not consider the broad social and ecological benefits of prescribed fire, or factor in the risk of not burning, which discourages the implementation of prescribed fire (Yoder 2004).

Yoder (2004) also acknowledges that changing in laws could have a backfiring effect in that it may lead to too much prescribed fire, too soon, and with too little knowledge. One of the main pushbacks regarding policy recommendations on loosening laws is the perceived vacuum of accountability on the part of the landowner and the increased risk perceived by adjacent landowners and neighbors. This again highlights the need for laws and policy conversations to consider the no action alternative for fuels reduction, as well as innovative ways to continue reducing the risk of escaped fires while removing the barriers to treatment implementation. This shows not only a need for less stringent laws, but also an increase in landowner education regarding prescribed fire. Many states have addressed this issue by developing burn manager certification programs. The development of a burn manager certification program for Oregon will be discussed in the policy recommendations.

Policy Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Change Oregon’s Standard of Care from Simple to Gross Negligence

Simple negligence requires the plaintiff to show negligence. Gross negligence would require the plaintiff to show reckless disregard for duty of care. In Oregon, liability for damage and liability for suppression costs are treated separately. A move from Simple to Gross negligence would be liability for damage only. This will be paired with policies that define what duty of care is for conducting a prescribed fire, including burn manager certification and Oregon’s permitting regulations.

Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, and Nevada all have gross negligence as the standard of care for prescribed fire conducted by burners that have training and education that meets state standards. These policies were established in recognition of the critical importance of bringing fire to the landscape.

Recommendation 2: Establish Statewide Burn Manager Certification Program for Oregon

A Statewide Prescribed Burn Manager Certification would develop training standards and track the credentials of burn professionals across the state. Certified burn managers would be aware of the steps they need to take and the factors they need to consider in order to expect a fire to be carried out safely. Defining these standards at a state level would bring clarity to burn managers, landowners, neighbors, and others about what they should expect.

The goals of an Oregon burn manager certification program would be:

1. Provide burners with training, knowledge and experience to safely conduct prescribed burns,

2. Educate and inform the public on the legitimacy and necessity of prescribed burning practices, and what it means to live in a fire adapted region.

3. Address concerns and answer questions about liability laws that limit burning by private landowners, contractors, and local governments and assemble information to help landowners make informed decisions about legal risks associated with fire use. Useful information would include data on prescribed fires that escape, the frequency and context of prescribed fire litigation cases, and easy to understand steps to follow liability laws.

4. Certified burn managers that conduct prescribed fires in accordance with Oregon State Laws and other important permitting regulations will receive liability protection under a gross negligence standard for damages caused by smoke or fire.

There are currently 13 states with formal and active certified burn manager programs.  For example, the State of Michigan’s Public Act 529 of 2004 calls for the development of a certification program, but the Department of Natural Resources did not develop or implement the program due to lack of funding. Efforts to develop new programs are ongoing in Washington, California, Minnesota, and West Virginia, and interested parties are pushing for a burning act and certification program in New Mexico. Some states offer trainings for prescribed burning that are not tied to a prescribed burn law, such as Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Missouri. (Matonis, 2020)

Perhaps of most importance to this policy recommendation is the fact that Oregon already has an unimplemented authority and legal framework for a Prescribed Burn Manager Program in ORS 526.360. This legislation, enacted in 1992, empowers the State Board of Forestry to establish a burn manager certification program.

The language from ORS 526.360 is as follows:

 (3)To accomplish the purposes set forth in subsection (1) of this section, the State Board of Forestry may establish by rule a Certified Burn Manager program. The rules shall include:

(a)Certification standards, requirements and procedures;

(b)Standards, requirements and procedures to revoke certification;

(c)Actions and activities that a Certified Burn Manager must perform;

(d)Actions and activities that a Certified Burn Manager may not allow or perform;

(e)Limitations on the use of a Certified Burn Manager; and

(f)Any other standard, requirement or procedure that the board considers necessary for the safe and effective administration of the program.

(4)When any burning for any of the purposes stated in subsection (1) of this section on forestland classified pursuant to ORS 526.328 (Hearing) or 526.340 (Classification by State Forester) is started under the supervision of and supervised by the forester or a Certified Burn Manager, no person shall be liable for property damage resulting from that burning unless the damage is caused by the negligence of the person. [Amended by 1965 c.253 §42; 1967 c.429 §33; 1999 c.101 §2]

(Authority of State Forester to enter private land to administer Forest Practices Act, 1978)

In addition to this authority, there are already important partnerships that have been built on the ground to support the success of this policy recommendation. Newly funded extension positions in the OSU Extension Fire Program would provide place based professionals to develop curriculum interfaces and landowner outreach. The Oregon Prescribed Fire Council, the Klamath Lake Forest Health Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Forest Stewards Guild, Watershed Councils, Forest Collaboratives and many other groups are already addressing barriers to prescribed fire, working directly with landowners interested in prescribed fire, and developing Community Response Plans in Smoke Sensitive Receptor Areas to mitigate smoke impacts on public health from both prescribed and wild fire events.


The outcome of changing Oregon’s standard of care to Gross Negligence and establishing a burn manager certification program would result in more skilled and fire adapted communities, a larger prescribed fire workforce, safer communities and healthier frequent-fire ecosystems.

The landscapes of Oregon and other Western states have adapted to fire over millennia. Historical policies of fire suppression, climate change, and population growth create conditions for increased risk to communities, economies, and forest health for Oregonians, and all Americans. One of the best tools at the disposal of land managers is to facilitate the return of good fire back to the landscape (Evans 2017). This will require cross-boundary collaboration and innovative polices that support treatment on private land, the wildland urban interface, and other high risk forest sites. State policies that support an innovative community of practice for mitigating wildfire is necessary, timely, and recommended. Addressing the legal barriers to prescribed fire will result in a healthier and safer Oregon and Pacific Northwest.

To see cited literature and read more indepth please follow these links:

Powerpoint Presentation.

Full Text of the Policy Brief

Blog 1: Evolution of Wildfire Policy in the U.S.

Views on the role of wildfire in forest ecosystems and policies crafted by those views have made drastic shifts across time in the United States. Before the colonization of the West, Native Americans used low-intensity fire to manage forests. In the 19th century, the federal government began to manage wildfire suppression on public land, with the primary motivations being to secure timber production and protect watersheds.

William B. Greeley served as the Forest Service Chief from 1920 to 1928 and was a fierce critic within the agency of what he problematically called “Paiute Forestry”, or managed fire.

Chief Greeley’s Fire Policy
“light burning, in actual practice, is simply the old ground fire which has been the scourge of the western pineries, under a new name”

Greely stated that America can have “real forests” if all partners and interests support a program of fire protection and more united effort by all agencies, public and private. He encouraged state legislation which required the disposal of slash on logged land. In addition, he sought to enlist private landowners in organized fire protection by promoting legislation to give the Forest Service more resources for cooperating with local agencies in fire protection and suppression.

Greely often cited European forestry as a rationale or motivating factor to back up his views. He stated that fire protection in Southern Europe should be an example for Western forestry to follow, where there is an organized system of detection and suppression with the end goal being to bring forth “improvements and intensive use” of forests. He believed that these fire protection policies could reduce destructive wildfires to a “negligible average or aggregate loss”.

Contemporary thinking of the role of wildfires in ecosystems
The Forest Service and public opinion on public land management began to experience a shift from suppression policies in the 1960s. Legislation such as the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (1960), the Wilderness Act (1964), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) more than likely began to shift conversations toward the ecological services provided by forests in addition to economic productivity and board feet.

Perhaps most markedly, these policies and expenditures supporting suppression were not resulting in less wildfire damage and offering a return on investment. The above shifts combined with increasing knowledge, interest, and research into the role of disturbance in ecosystems led to the 1972 Wilderness Prescribed Natural Fire Program which allowed some wildfires to burn in wilderness areas.
Another federal agency, the National Parks Service, officially recognized the “natural role of fire” in 1968.

These policies no doubt fueled more interest and support in scientific research on the role of fire disturbance for forest ecosystem health, and with that science came more policies that recognized the natural role of fire (and the necessity for prescribed fire) in forests, such as the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy of 1995.

Even though there have been huge shifts and innovations in forestry since Chief Greeley’s time, the motivations between economic productivity and multiple use policies on public land and forests have continued to make policies about wildfire management nuanced and difficult. Even so, there are significant state policies developed to support fire management plans that allow the use of fire in certain conditions and with collaboration from the public.

Blog 2: National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy

This blog highlights the video by the US Forest Service on Cohesive Strategy Stakeholders Perspectives

The last several decades have seen a drastic increase in extreme, uncharacteristic wildfire behavior that threatens communities and ecosystems, increases losses of homes and properties, and increases risks for firefighters and first repsonders. In 2009, congress passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or the FLAME Act. This act mandated the development of a strategy to comprehensively and collaboratively address wildfire risk and management in the United States. This is now known as the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy or the Cohesive Strategy. Because fire does not respect jurisdictional boundaries, the foundation of this strategy is based on cross-boundary fire management.

The Cohesive Strategy has three key pillars:

  1. Restoration of a fire-resilient landscape
    Resiliency is defined as the ability of an ecosystem to recover after disturbance or resist disturbance and still maintain its function and processes. Many landscapes in the west are fire starved and need the reintroduction of frequent low-severity fire.
  2. Create fire-adapted communities
    The National Wildfire Coordinating Group defines a fire-adapted community as “A human community consisting of informed and prepared citizens collaboratively planning and taking action to safely coexist with wildland fire”
  3. Safer and more effective firefighting operations and response
    Effective firefighting operations and a safe fire response depend on sound risk assessment and management. This must be implemented by state, local, and federal agencies as well as by well trained and supported firefighters.

In the video, it is stated that the end goal for the cohesive strategy is to reduce the impacts of wildfire not just across landscapes, but in communities and within fire response. It is important to understand that programs and activities in one area will impact other areas as well.

In order to implement this strategy in a meaningful way, it is important to build familiarity and clarity with the Cohesive Strategy at regional and local levels. This is especially important in rural areas that are most closely adjacent to fire-prone landscapes to provide tangible and actionable implementation goals and to build and foster local stakeholder networks to implement those actions.


Cohesive Strategy Stakeholders Perspectives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=16&v=Xy06f0YZPt8&feature=emb_title.

Council, Wildland Fire Executive. “The national strategy: The final phase in the development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.” Washington, DC) Available at http://www. forestsandrangelands. gov/strategy/documents/strategy/CSPhaseIIINationalStrategyApr2014. pdf [Verified 11 December 2015] (2014).