Above: Pleasant Valley Prescribed fire in South Dakota, March 10, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Exposure to liability worries many land managers when they are considering using prescribed fire as a management tool. Knowledge of the facts is one of the first steps toward lessening that concern.
Carissa Wonkka of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has written an article for the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange that discusses fire liability and standards of care. You can read the entire article here. Below is a very brief excerpt.
…In the United States, state open burning statutes define the standard of care owed to the public by burners. In a lawsuit, a burner will be found liable for damages resulting from their fire or smoke if they have not met the standard of care prescribed by their state statute. If a state has not developed a statute specifically related to open burning or prescribed burning, judges will apply the standard of care established by previous prescribed burning cases in their state. Three different standards of care have emerged for prescribed fire practitioners: strict liability, simple negligence, and gross negligence.
Strict liability is the most stringent standard of care for those using prescribed fire, with only five states (Hawaii, Delaware, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) applying this standard in prescribed fire civil cases. Under a strict liability standard, a court would hold burners liable for any property damage caused by an escaped prescribed fire, regardless of the action of the burner. This standard is more often established through case law, not explicitly stated in the statute. Some states have language that suggests strict liability will apply even though the statute does not expressly state this. Hawaii, for example, makes escape of fire beyond the established burn perimeter evidence that, if uncontested, is sufficient to prove willfulness, malice, or negligence. This means that a plaintiff in a case against a burner could win a lawsuit simply by showing that the ϐire escaped. The burden of proof would fall on the defendant to prove they were not negligent in the events leading up to the escape that caused the damages…
Here are some additional video reports about the test of the Unmanned Aircraft System, or drone, that was used April 22 to assist with ignition of a prescribed fire in Homestead National Monument in southeast Nebraska.
In this video U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Bill Kiser gives an excellent description of why and how the agency uses prescribed fire as a management tool in Brice Prairie, north of La Crosse, Wisconsin (map).
The use of an unmanned aerial system, or drone, to ignite a portion of the prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska appeared to be successful, according to the participants we talked with at the completion of the project. After the perimeter was ignited by hand using drip torches, the drone launched to the interior and dropped plastic spheres which burst into flame about a minute after landing on the ground. The spheres are similar to the ones dropped by helicopters for aerial ignition on large wildfires and prescribed fires. This project was 26 acres of grass that had received heavy rain which ended about 30 hours earlier. The ground was wet but the thatch was mostly dry and greenup had started. The temperature was in the high 60s and the relative humidity was around 40 percent. The wind was light, a few miles an hour.
The drone only holds 13 spheres, compared to the hundreds or more that fit into the hopper of a full size machine carried by a piloted helicopter. The drone made around half a dozen or so sorties, returning to the launch spot each time to reload. It followed a predetermined pattern each time, flying to its assignment, dropping the spheres in a line, then returning.
After the first sortie it returned with its full load of spheres. A radio communication problem prevented the deployment of the devices. After this was worked out it went fairly smoothly. At several points, however, the hand igniters had to wait for the drone to launch and light its assigned locations before the firefighters could continue working their way around the perimeter.
Most likely these bugs can be worked out.
Below is a video report about the project. It includes images from the burn plus interviews with five key members of the team that helped make it happen.
On April 18 the staff at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania conducted a 36-acre prescribed fire at Munshower field and a portion of the Trostle woodlot. The overall objectives were to maintain the conditions of the battlefield as experienced by the soldiers who fought there, perpetuate the open space character of the landscape, maintain wildlife habitat, control invasive exotic species, reduce shrub and woody species components, and reduce fuels in wooded areas to reduce fire hazard.
The photos are provided by the National Park Service.