Your Rights Regarding Wildland Fires

The spate of wildland fires in recent years has of course been followed by a spate of litigation. People who are involved with a wildland fire should consider that the governmental fire investigators are not necessarily the best and there is no substitution for retaining an expert whether you are accused of causing the fire or suffered damage from a fire. There are rather extensive federal standards for both investigations and fire fighting. Some of the more remote counties with volunteer staffs do not always make a serious effort to comply with federal guidelines and a some of the investigations depart surprisingly far from generally accepted standards. For this reason most litigation involves issues of causation and whether a portion of the damage is the responsibility of the local fire department.

The importance of the job done by the fire department in extinguishing the fire and the governmental investigator in determining causation is magnified by the fact that the County Prosecutor can bring a criminal action against the person labeled as responsible the fire. The Bureau of Land Management is very aggressive in pursuing lawsuits for the restoration of federal land damaged by fire. It claims advantage of a federal law giving it 6 years in which to sue. Otherwise the statute of limitations is generally accepted to be three years but there is authority that it only two years.

If you are questioned in connection with a fire, before answering questions you should ask for as much information as possible about the fire. Find out exactly who it is who is questioning you. (Usually there will be two people.) Find out the extent of the fire, the extent of the investigation so far and whether you are a suspect. Remember that you are not compelled to answer questions and you can schedule an interview for any time that is convenient for you. Washington has not yet held that you have a right to have a lawyer present, so if you answer questions without one, you do so at your peril. You can, however, insist that your lawyer be present before you answer questions.

It strikes me as anomalous that an investigation which can lead to criminal charges is not recognized as being within the scope of your constitutional protections but at least as yet that recognition has not occurred.

If you own land where there is a threat of fire, be proactive and do what you can to mitigate the risk. This will also serve you well if your land is damaged by a fire and you are required to bring a lawsuit. Also look at insurance and consider whether you can get a liability policy covering you if you are accused of starting a fire.


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