Chair: Mark Horn, Conservation Journalist
For more information on our Liability Committee, or to join the committee, please contact Mark Horn. Participation in the committee is open to any interested member of the WPFC.
The Liability Committee strives to find affordable and attainable insurance for not-for-profit organizations, contractors, and businesses. We are in the process of reestablishing the liability committee and plan to work with insurance companies to better understand what is needed to support and provide prescribed fire insurance and liability.
Liability as an Issue
Wildfire is a very real risk in Wisconsin, as it is across the nation. The recent increase in number, size and intensity of wildfires has resulted in skyrocketing damage to property an even cost lives in the American West. Here in Wisconsin, decades of wildfire suppression has vastly increased fuel loading (i.e. materials that can burn) in our woodlands and wetlands.
In addition to increasing wildfire risk, lack of frequent fire on our fire-dependent prairies and forests has caused them to increasingly be taken over by invasive shrubs or other exotic species, thus lowering both diversity and function of these ecosystems. This increase in both combustible fuels and the lowering of ecosystem diversity and function increase the cost to landowners and more generally to society
Prescribed fire is the most effective tool for maintaining the quality of our natural ecosystems while also reducing also wildfire risk. However, prescribed fire carries with it the risk that “good fire” will escape outside the established boundaries and become destructive wildfire.
Wisconsin has a strict liability statute that makes the person who ignites a fire financially responsible for any costs associated with putting out the resulting wildfire, as well as damage that fire causes. This is an absolute standard that does not require hostile intent or even negligence. The mere fact that a person lights a fire makes him or her responsible for the fire until it is completely extinguished.
Who is Responsible?
If a homeowner is burning their own property, their homeowners insurance will typically cover damage caused if the fire escapes onto a neighbor’s property. Likewise, farm and ranch policies typically provide coverage for agricultural producers. Occasionally, there may be an exclusion for hostile fire in the homeowners, of farm/ranch policy, so property owners need to read their policy carefully to ensure such coverage is not excluded.
When the homeowner, timberland owner, farmer or rancher hires someone else to plan or conduct the burn, liability falls on the consultant or contractor. Prescribed fire practitioners typically offer those services as one part of a larger practice, such as habitat restoration, wildlife management or forestland management. Prescribed fire coverage is then provided as part of general liability insurance for the enterprise.
There are several ways to address risk. The first is to accept it. A prescribed fire practitioner who chooses to accept wildfire risk in Wisconsin, however, carries the full financial responsibility for and suppression costs and damages the escaped fire causes. Ignoring the risk is considered a form of acceptance.
The second way to mitigate risk is to adopt professional standards that reduce risks inherent in prescribed fire. Qualified prescribed fire practitioners mitigate risk by developing detailed burn plans, establishing effective fire breaks, burning only when weather and fuels permit, using trained crews with adequate equipment and effective procedures to prevent fire from escaping the burn unit.
Mitigation dramatically reduces, but cannot eliminate, risk. The final way to address risk is through insurance. Insurance transfers the cost of reimbursing those damaged by wildfire loss from the practioner or burn boss to an insurance company.
Insurance companies agree to transfer all or a portion of that risk in exchange for payment of premiums. In doing so, they assess potential hazards, as well as both amount and probability of loss due to those hazards (taking into account the mitigation practices in place), and they require adoption of industry standards.
Prescribed fire is a relatively new profession. Yet there are currently fewer qualified practitioners offering prescribed fire services than there is demand for those services. WPFC seeks to improve standards for practitioners while also working with insurers to understand geographically-based risk assessments that are directly related to prescribed fire and not wildfire. Done properly, a sustainable industry can continue to develop and grow, helping all of us to get more fire on the ground safely and effectively.
2023 Prescribed Fire Insurance
The following is provided for informational purposes only. It constitutes neither a solicitation nor an endorsement of either the insurance product or the insurer.
Liability insurance is necessary to provide protection for those who plan, direct or perform the act of prescribed burning on non-federal lands. This is because their actions cause ignition, management and extinguishment of prescribed fire. However, the lack of liability insurance has frequently been cited as a major barrier to the increased use of prescribed fire. The WPFC Liability Committee continues to work with stakeholders to increase access to prescribed fire liability insurance. We are pleased to announce that new coverage has just come into the market that could substantially reduce this barrier to burning..
Effective January 1, 2023, Forest Specialty Underwriters, Ltd. (FSU) along with Lloyds of London, is offering liability insurance coverage for those who plan or conduct prescribed burns. This coverage is available to qualified burners regardless of whether prescribed fire is a focus of your business or you only burn occasionally. Click HERE for the FSU insurance application, click HERE for FAQs, and click HEREfor the official insurance product flyer.
- Prescribed Fire Contractors
- Environmental Consultants
- Wildfire Resource Consultants
- Landscape Contractors and Engineers
- Private Natural Resource Managers including Ecologists, Foresters and Wildlife Biologists
- State & Federal Agencies involved in Fire Management
- Municipal & County Natural Resource Managers
- Non – profit Natural Resource Management Organizations
- RFD & VFD Personnel
- Fire Protection Organizations and RxFire Associations, Councils and Cooperatives
- Forest Preserve Districts
- Some Prescribed Fire Associations
- Forestry Consultants
- Timber Buyers
Coverage limits include $10,000 per day $100,000 total for fire suppression costs and $1,000,000 for overall liability.
This policy is available everywhere except: CA, OR & WA.
For more information contact:
Forest Specialty Underwriters. Ltd.
phone: (877) 295-8086
In July 2022, the Liability Committee released the WPFC Liability White Paper that provided an overview of liability issues associated with prescribed burning. While that paper was published before the Forest Specialist policy became available, the remainder of its analysis remains current.
In 2006, we worked with a private firm to develop an actuarial analysis (determined risk) for prescribed fire that will help insurance companies develop policies based on historical claim data. As a result of catastrophic wildfires in the west, there has been a growing reluctance on the part of insurance companies to cover prescribed fire practitioners due to a lack of data. Click here to review the full report!
We offered data from our collective Wisconsin prescribed fire experience to this effort. A market analysis of demand for prescribed fire insurance was not funded by the Joint Fire Council. We will continue to look for funding to ensure insurance for the prescribed fire community. Click here for a report summary.
- Article from from Washington State University School of Economic Sciences “Liability, regulation and endogenous risk: Incidence and severity of escaped prescribed fires in the United States”
- Article from 1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conference “Legal Liability Exposures Created By Prescribed Burning”
- Landowner Guide to Wildfire Safety (Cutter Law, Sacramento Califonia)
- Trends in Prescribed Fire Insurance – 2021 Fall North Florida Prescribed Fire Council Meeting recorded presentation
- Prescribed Fire: Understanding Liability, Laws and Risk – Oklahoma State University Extension fact sheet
- Prescribed Fire – A Look at Landowner’s Legal Liability in Georgia – 2020 North Georgia Prescribed Fire Council Meeting recorded presentation
- Prescribed Fire Insurance Survey – Forest Stewards Guild