With spring approaching, prescribed fires will be used extensively to reduce wildfire risks across Mississippi.
While there are clear benefits associated with the controlled burns, a Mississippi State researcher said potential risks from the process have resulted in revised state liability laws.
Benefits of prescribed fires include a reduction in the fuel available for wildfires, vegetation control and wildlife habitat enhancement, said Edwin Sun, assistant professor of forest policy in the university's Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
"Recognition of the benefits that prescribed fires hold has increased their use in recent years by both landowners and public agencies," he said. A 2001 study reported that prescribed fires were used on more than 4.1 million acres of pine-type forests annually between 1985 and 1994 in the Southern region of the United States, he added.
Today, however, landowners and public agencies face a number of factors that limit the use of prescribed fires.
In a recent research report funded by the federal McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research Program, Sun examined these statutory changes. Strict liability, simple negligence and gross negligence, along with the related laws currently in place in Southern states, were examined in his study.
"One of the most cited (factors) is potential liability of escaped fires," Sun said. "Given the demand for prescribed fires from the resource management community and the concern about liability, state legislators have responded by revising state liability laws in recent years."
In 1992, Mississippi adopted a prescribed burning law similar to legislation passed earlier in Florida. The Sunshine State's 1990 Prescribed Burning Act sought to limit liability of trained professionals using fire under appropriate circumstances.
"(The Florida act) recognized that prescribed burning was a right of landowners and a management tool that would benefit public safety and the environment," Sun explained.
The Magnolia State's legislature further defined those rules in its Mississippi Prescribed Burning Act of 1999. As written, burning conducted under the provisions of the act must be:
- Supervised by at least one certified prescribed burning manager;
- Conducted pursuant to a written prescription notarized prior to the burning;
- Permitted by the Mississippi Forestry Commission; and
- Considered in the public interest not constituting a public or private nuisance when conducted pursuant to state air pollution statutes and rules.
Sun said that, overall, Mississippi's legislation for prescribed burning is beneficial for landowners.
"The demand for prescribed fires has driven state liability laws toward lighter liability burdens on forest landowners using the practice," he observed.
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