PHOENIX — State lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to immunize the Land Department from mistakes and negligence that result in forest fires — even if that means destroyed homes and dead firefighters.
Without dissent, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to amend the law to say the state and its employees “shall not be liable for acts or omissions of its employees” in fulfilling any responsibilities in the Public Lands Code. The move sends the measure to the full Senate.
Tuesday’s vote on HB 2343 came over the objections of Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr.
She said the underlying measure proposing to have the Land Department thin underbrush makes some sense. But she said the immunity provision is bad policy.
“It looks really bad in the context of a forest bill to put that kind of blanket immunity in,” Bahr said. “If the state employees or the state are irresponsible, if there’s gross negligence, they ought to be held liable and accountable for it.”
And Bahr said the provision is particularly onerous in the wake of the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters.
“At the same time that you all are talking about doing a memorial, you’re talking about immunity?” she asked.
Survivors of the firefighters killed have filed wrongful-death claims against the state.
Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who chairs the committee, said the immunity language was requested by the state Attorney General’s Office. But Art Harding, that agency’s lobbyist, said late Tuesday that he could not say exactly which assistant attorney general sought the verbiage.
The addition came over the objections of Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, one of the proponents of the measure.
She vowed to either have the language removed or try to kill the entire proposal.
What’s behind the measure, she said, is getting ahead of fires before they start — or at least before they can become major conflagrations.
The idea is to require the Land Department to take steps to clear underbrush and other vegetation from the state’s approximately 9.3 million acres of public lands.
At the moment there is no funding for the program.
But Otondo said she believes the state probably can find $5 million in the budget, something she said will go a long way even at a cost of $1,000 an acre to provide suitable “treatment” of lands.
She said the measure also would create jobs.
Otondo said the immunity language, inserted in the plan by the Attorney General’s Office, came as a surprise to her.
She also said the idea is opposed by those who go out and fight those wildland fires.
“I will fight to the nth degree (to kill the measure) if I do not have the protection and support of my firefighters,” she said, calling them the major stakeholders in any fight to prevent conflagrations. “I will not move without the support of the firemen. Period.”
Otondo also wants the scope of the measure broadened when it goes to the full Senate so that it involves not just removing brush but using other “land management treatments” to prevent major fires.
That suits Bahr.
She said that sometimes the best way of preventing large fires and preserving the environment, especially on grasslands, is to allow smaller ones to burn.