Negligence is key factor in wildfire culpability

When a homeowner starts a fire on their property and it gets out of hand, requiring local and county fire services to put it out, who pays the bill? Is the property owner fined for negligence and expected to pay for the fire services? Or is it passed on to the taxpayers?

— Betsy S., Medford area

With fire danger starting to heat up, that question is definitely SYA-worthy, Betsy.

Because you are alluding to wildland fires, we posed the question to Dan Thorpe, forester in charge of the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District, which includes Jackson and Josephine counties.

Firefighters from ODF are the primary local wildland firefighters on private, county, state and Bureau of Land Management forest and grass lands.

"The short answer is the homeowner can be held responsible, but the long answer is more complex," he said. "It depends on negligence."

In other words, if the person responsible did not abide by regulations, including required safety precautions, he or she could be made to pay for the suppression costs, which can be substantial.

"We are talking about just ODF costs here," Thorpe said. "The reason ODF does this is because it was directed by statute. The law has been around for a long time."

Because wildland fire protection is funded by landowners, it would be unfair to make others pay for the negligence of an individual, he noted.

The bottom line, he stressed, is that everyone needs to be exceedingly cautious and follow the guidelines when doing any outside burning.

Keep in mind that there are some areas where outside burning of woody debris or burn barrels is never allowed, and during fire season is verboten.

To determine where and when burning is legal, call 541-776-7007 in Jackson County and 541-476-9663 in Josephine County for a recorded message that is updated daily.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.