Barriers to “Good Fire”
Wisconsin needs more prescribed fire to prevent the loss of valuable habitat and improve the ecological value of land degraded by misuse and neglect. Prescribed fire is currently only used on 10% of the fire-adapted acres remaining in Wisconsin. Private landowners and public land managers would like to double that acreage in the coming decade. There are several barriers to meeting the goal of doubling the acres of “good fire” completed each year. Recent surveys of private landowners and public land managers identify a number of factors the get in the way of prescribed burning. While the order and number vary these four barriers emerge as having the most impact.
Removing Barriers Begins with Certification
The first of these is the lack of a statewide certification for prescribed fire practitioners. Wisconsin needs a recognized credential for those who plan and lead prescribed burns. It needs a similar certification for crew leaders and members. These certifications will provide assurance those to landowners, insurers, permit granting authorities and the public. Stakeholders need confidence that those putting good fire on the ground know their business and have demonstrated their competence.
Training as a Barrier
These certification programs all require criterion based training programs that teach the knowledge and skills required to meet certification standards. Current wildland fire training focuses almost exclusively on wildfire suppression. While these skills are necessary they are not sufficient to ensure prescribed burners can safely and effectively apply prescribed fire to the land. Training courses must be widely available and accessible to train sufficient crews and leaders to meet the increasing demand.
The Insurance Barrier
Affordable insurance must be made available for prescribed fire practitioners. Prescribed fire is extremely safe when properly planned and executed. Insurers must be confident they can accurately calculate risk in order to market coverage that meets the need. Certification will help provide the assurance required to determine who they can insure.
Finally, the current standard of strict liability for prescribed fire must be relaxed. Wisconsin is one of only two states that impose that level of liability. Here, the person who drops the match owns the fire until it is completely extinguished — no exceptions. Most states either have an implied or state standard of regular liability. In those states the courts look at what a reasonable person would have been expected to do under the circumstances. Under the reasonable person standard, burners are not held liable for extraordinary situations such as changes in weather that were not predicted. The burner is culpable for negligent or irresponsible acts. A few states have gross negligence laws that hold qualified burners harmless unless they intentionally or flagrantly neglect or disregard their responsibilities. The gross negligence standard recognizes that prescribed fire is a public good, therefore, the public accepts some responsibility if something goes wrong.