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New law: Farmers, ranchers have immunity in fire fights

A law passed by the Oregon Legislature gives farmers and ranchers immunity from liability while fighting dangerous wildfires.

Posted: Jun 21, 2019 12:05 PM
Updated: Jun 21, 2019 4:07 PM

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A law passed by the Oregon Legislature gives farmers and ranchers immunity from liability while fighting dangerous wildfires, such as the one that chewed through acres of wheat fields and grasslands last year, a newspaper reported Friday.

The law is similar to one that prevents bystanders from being sued if they try to help during an emergency, The Capitol Press reported .

Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill June 18 at a ceremony with the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Wheat farmers were the first to respond to the rapidly spreading fire and used their disc plows and water trucks to slow it down before any firefighters arrived. The blaze destroyed 122 square miles (316 square kilometers) of dry wheat fields and grasslands and was devastating for wheat farmers in wind-whipped north-central Oregon.

Its sponsor, Sen. Bill Hansell, a Republican from Athena, Oregon, said the farmers who used their plows to create dirt firebreaks around homes and small communities were critical in slowing the flames.

The fire might have devastated the nearby small cities of Moro and Grass Valley, similar to Paradise, California, if not for them, he said.

"Farmers have been doing this ever since we began raising wheat," said Hansell, whose family runs a wheat farm in Umatilla County.

One farmer, 64-year-old John Ruby, died trying to protect his neighbor's home from the fire. That raised concerns about potential liability for farmers and residents in a similar situation, he told the newspaper.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2020, says that a person who voluntarily joins the effort will not be held civilly liable for injury resulting from the "good faith performance" of firefighting activities. Professionally trained firefighters are not covered by the legislation.

"Anytime you're talking about limiting liability for somebody who does something out on the landscape, or responds to an accident, we want to protect them if they're acting in good faith," said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Without wheat farmers on the front lines, Rowe said the Substation fire probably would have been worse. "Farmers bring equipment and skills to the party that some of our rural (fire) districts just don't have," he said.

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