It is a very soggy June on westerm Washington, but a word of warning about fires this summer. Just as landslides get a lot of attention in this region, summer fires get a lot of attention in Eastern Washington. We read about forest fires over here but there are also many fires in non-forested areas, called wildland fires. During the heat of the summer a large portion of the State turns into a virtual tinder box and many people have suffered the consequences and not just property owners.
A person causing a fire is liable for treble damages to people suffering losses from the fire. One fire can create a large number of lawsuits. It need only proven that more probably than not you caused the fire. If there is a reasonably good argument that you caused the fire there can be devastating personal consequences.
The state will usually conduct an investigation of larger fires and issue a report which will be reviewed by the county prosecutor, among others. For reasons that are unclear to me people being investigated do not seem to have the full protection that the constitution affords criminal suspects. These investigations and interviews can be aggressive and intimidating.
The county prosecutor then can sue for the cost of fighting the fire and bring criminal charges. Last summer a hapless fellow made the ill-advised decision to light a smoke bomb in a treeless area outside of town. It ignited dead grass leading to a wildfire that resulted in a fine of well over one million dollars and a jail sentence.
The next wave of trouble comes from the federal government which can sue you any time within six years after the fire. The government usually seeks the cost of restoring federal land to its condition before the fire. The cost of replanting is staggering, even in so called “scrub” areas.
People find themselves in this situation when they are accused of leaving coals in a camp fire, or sometimes having a fire when there is a fire warning of which they were unaware. People are accused of starting fires a variety of different ways, such as having discharged guns, driving vehicles that created a spark, permitting an ember from a fire to travel hundreds of feet to a dry area. It would not be a bad idea to take a cell phone picture showing that your fire was entirely out before you leave a campsite.
Be careful. There are literally dozens of these cases every year. The federal government has become very aggressive, as have some counties. It is also prudent to consult a lawyer before being interviewed by a fire investigator, particularly one who just shows up at your door.