In the United States, prescribed fire and liability laws differ greatly from state to state and even from county to county. Permits, parameters under which you can burn, and contingency needs are all legal issues you must take into consideration before putting fire on the ground.

The primary federal legislation that affects prescribed burning is the Clean Air Act. The Act defines a list of air pollutants that are regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Compliance with these regulations is the responsibility of the States. Conservancy staff have summarized basic information about air quality regulations and smoke management as they relate to prescribed fire.

Every state has laws regulating open burning, some of which can be found on the web. Check your state's forestry web site to see if your state's laws are posted. Also see the Forest Encyclopedia Network's State Prescribed Burn Statutes page .

Some states have recognized the value of prescribed fire in land management and wildfire hazard reduction, but understand that potential liability for unintended consequences of an escaped fire may be a deterrent to treating fuels. They have mitigated this conflict through Prescribed Fire Acts, which offer varying degrees of protection to the burn boss. The Acts typically state that negligence must be proven before a burn boss becomes liable for damages from an escaped fire if conducted under specific guidelines. In some states, that protection is extended to proof of gross negligence.  None of these Acts has been tested in court, however.

Links to some examples are provided below.

As mentioned above, states have the responsibility for compliance with the Clean Air Act and EPA's air quality regulations. They may pass legislation or regulations to limit smoke emissions as part of this responsibility, which typically takes the form of a State Implementation Plan, and/or a State Smoke Management Program. Fire managers should be familiar with air quality regulations for the areas in which they intend to burn and comply with all standards.

Individual counties may pass air quality regulations that are more strict than federal standards. In fact, this may be a bigger threat to prescribed burning than federal or state regulations. Be proactive in working with the local county and city administrators to educate them about the importance of burning at your site. Stress the essential role of fire in maintaining the community's natural resources. In Florida, the Prescribed Fire Councils (local associations of fire users from federal, state and private interests) have promoted passage of county resolutions that support the use of fire as a land management tool. See an example of this type of resolution from Wakulla County, Florida.

GO BACK »