Private Landowners Responsible to Pay for Public Fires ?
A recent federal court ruling could result in the closure of public access now provided by private forest landowners. Large property owners such as PG&E and Sierra Pacific Industries historically allow the public to hike, hunt, ride and fish on their privately owned property. But this practice may stop after a federal court ruled that these landowners may potentially be held liable for any fire that starts on their property.
The ruling highlighted the 2007 Moonlight Fire that may end up costing the landowners and contractors working on the property almost $100 million in the estimated total value of recoverable damages, when the wildfire moved from their private lands onto public ones. Although the origin of the fire is still under dispute, a judge’s ruling made it clear that the landowner may be liable regardless of how the fire was started.
According to David Bischel, President of the California Forestry Association (CFA), “Many forest landowners have allowed local communities and others access to their lands, but they are now facing extraordinary legal risk by allowing the public to recreate on their property. Our members are finding it difficult to obtain insurance and face serious potential financial consequences of an open access policy.” Bischel further explained that California Civil Code Section 846 states that a landowner has “no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose….” With this ruling the law may no longer protect private landowners from liability concerns.
This ruling, and the resulting negative effects on private landowners, may also impact local recreationists as regards smaller parcels of land. This author recalls several Planning Commission hearings where the public asked to retain access on land slated for development, where they had been using the property to ride horses or hike, as part of mitigations the Commission could apply if they were to approve the project. Debate ensued about who would be liable for any accidents that might occur and California law was cited as providing protections for the property owner. Such requests may be a moot point under this ruling.