You Could Foot the Bill for the Next Big Wildfire

In some states, individuals who start forest fires, even accidentally, are facing multimillion-dollar fines

Sep 8, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
You Could Foot the Bill for the Next Big Wildfire

A tree erupts into flames along Interstate 90 during nighttime burnout operations to keep the Derby Fire from crossing the highway. Montana, Big Timber. August, 2006.    Photo: NOAA Library

In Oregon, two elderly men are being billed $37 million for a fire the state says they started with their lawn mowers. In California, a homeowner is being charged $25 million for a fire authorities claim was sparked by a known electrical problem at his house. Could you be stuck with a similar multimillion-dollar tab for accidentally starting a wildfire?

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The answer used to be no. “In the United States, we’ve had a very cavalier attitude toward fires,” says J. Curtis Varone, a former firefighter who now practices law and specializes in fire litigation. “We consider fires to be an accident that’s really nobody’s fault.”

But with wildfires exploding across the American West—the number is up 70 percent in California so far in 2016—local and state governments have decided that typical civil penalties for causing a fire are no longer good enough. The two men in Oregon were fined just $550 for a fire that ultimately cost the state at least $37 million to extinguish. 

“There’s no magical pot of gold out there being used to pay for this,” says Varone. Firefighting costs are overwhelming states and are so burdensome at the federal level that money is being taken away from fire prevention to pay for firefighting. I’m sure you can see the problem with that. 

Does that mean we should be sticking individuals with the multimillion-dollar bills for the fires they cause? “I don’t think it’s unlike some of the other things in society that we have to wrestle with,” Varone says. “If someone becomes sick, and they don’t have health insurance, then we’re all paying for that, whether it’s through tax money or increased premiums. If these people can cause $37 million of harm to all of us, should they be able to walk away from that?”

Normal tort law covers liability for fire-caused damages, according to the former deputy assistant chief. “If someone causes someone else injury, they would be liable for damages, presumably, if they were negligent, grossly negligent, or reckless.” In this case, those damages are accrued by the agencies fighting the fires, as well as the government and anyone who loses property or is similarly affected. 

Varone goes on to explain that you could be held responsible for the costs of a wildfire if you allow a campfire to get out of control, spark a fire while cutting your lawn, or similarly act carelessly. 

And that’s exactly who the states are holding responsible. In 2004, William Rupp, a resident of Lake Shasta, California, started a fire while mowing his lawn during a time of day when such activity was banned. He was convicted of arson, served two years in prison, and now owes $2.9 million to the fire’s victims. 

Such stiff penalties are intended to serve as a deterrent. If you murder someone, you’ll go to jail. That stops most of us from killing people. Drinking and driving costs you a ton of hassle and about $10,000 in legal fees, so you call an Uber. But penalties for carelessly causing a wildfire have traditionally been far less than their ultimate costs. That’s what’s changing: Authorities are trying to move the penalties for causing a fire to the same ballpark as the damage caused. Sticking you with the bill is how they’re doing it. 

“Think about the way you conduct yourself around the house,” suggests Varone. “Maybe you have many things plugged into an outlet. If you know you’re going to jail if that causes a fire, then you’re much more likely to be careful and not overload that outlet, versus ‘Oh, I don’t care. I’ve got insurance.’”

Insurance is an interesting issue when it comes to these massive bills. If, like William Rupp or the Oregon men, you cause a wildfire while mowing your lawn, will your homeowner’s policy cover the liability? “It’s almost inconceivable that you could buy a liability policy that doesn’t have a cap on it,” says Varone. Typically, that will range from a few hundred thousand to $1,000,000. Maybe $2,000,000 if you buy an umbrella policy. That doesn’t even come close to covering a $37 million bill. So why try to collect it? Because doing so is often the stiffest possible penalty a state can apply without going through the process of passing new criminal laws. “We want to make sure the persons who are most responsible are being held responsible,” says Varone. 

The hope is that the bill will be enough of a deterrent to get all of us to change our behavior. Wildfires are a major problem in this country right now—average annual costs are currently at $1.8 billion, and humans cause 90 percent of the fires. It’s time that we, as individuals, correct the behaviors that are causing fires. If you won’t do it for reasons of environmental responsibility or safety, well, now you’re going to want to so you can avoid financial ruin. 

“In the wildlands, it’s an almost subliminal belief we all have that fires are just an accident, that they’re no big deal,” says Varone. “But they are a big deal, and we do have to pay for them. And the people who are responsible should be held accountable.”

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