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Prescribed Burning Act set to become Missouri law

by Jonathan Jain, [email protected] | June 22, 2021 at 11:05 a.m. | Updated June 22, 2021 at 11:54 a.m.
Beth Gerling of the Jefferson City Fire Department unwinds a hose from the brush truck, one of several trucks that was dispatched to a natural cover fire in the median of U.S. 54, just south of the Ellis Boulevard overpass, on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. There were several spot fires from an unknown origin in the grass that stretched from the Route OO-AA overpass in Holts Summit to just north of the Missouri 179 overpass. The Holts Summit Fire Department also dispatched multiple units to combat the fire to keep the dry grass from burning out of control.

After receiving almost unanimous support in the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 369 is waiting Gov. Mike Parson's signature to become law. It would create the Prescribed Burning Act, which defines liability for harm caused by controlled fires.

HB 369 passed the Senate in a 31-2 vote and the House in a 150-1 vote. With near-unanimous support from both sides, bill sponsor state Rep. Tim Taylor, R-Bunceton, said he was impressed by the way legislators from different backgrounds came together to support his bill.

Although he hasn't heard from Parson, Taylor said he has a gut feeling the bill will be signed into law.

"There really isn't any reason I could see as to why he wouldn't do that, especially with this having no opposition," Taylor said. "I think he's going to sign it."

Taylor thinks the broad support for the bill is due to its common-sense measures.

"Nature has utilized fire as a regeneration tool since the dawn of time, so all groups understand its importance," he said.

Currently, Missouri is one of five states in the country that don't clearly define who has liability for damages that occur from prescribed burning damage. With the creation of the Prescribed Burning Act, landowners would not be liable for damages or losses caused by controlled burns unless negligence is proved.

Aaron Jeffries, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, explained the difficulties associated with not having a defined liability of prescribed burning.

"If I'm a contractor that's hired to do a prescribed burn, it is very difficult - or impossible or uneconomical - for me to get liability insurance here in Missouri to conduct those prescribed burns because liability is not defined in state statute," Jeffries said. "The legislation simply defined liability, which would then now allow an insurance company to offer insurance to a contractor that wants to conduct prescribed burns and have the security of having insurance to do so."

Jeffries said the Missouri Prescribed Fire Council, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Insurance Coalition and various agricultural groups have supported these measures.

Taylor said the major impact of the bill would be insurance companies would be less hesitant to provide insurance for people who do prescribed burns. He added having cheaper, in-state insurance companies competing to insure certified burn managers would lower costs for clients.

"Hopefully the insurance companies will jump on board with this, and they'll feel more comfortable about providing," Taylor said.

Taylor retired from being a firefighter after 31 years of volunteer and professional experience. The Conservation Federation of Missouri approached Taylor about sponsoring the legislation because of his firefighting career and previous experience with burning native grasses on his farm.

Reflecting on his firefighting career, Taylor said the worst fires he fought came when landowners had a lot of vegetation built up because they were uncomfortable with burning or hiring a certified burn manager. When the landowner would decide to burn the vegetation, the fire was often bigger and worse than it needed to be, and firefighters had to get involved.

Taylor said controlled burning can often get out of control because people will burn in improper conditions.

HB 369 also includes feral hog regulatory changes and several other measures.

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