New laws grant more power to fire officials
SUMMIT COUNTY – Summer is over, but fire danger remains high.
This summer, Gov. Bill Owens signed several new laws to give local law enforcement and fire officials more authority to prevent fires while increasing the severity of fire-related crimes by raising fines and prison terms.
House Bill 02S-1006, approved in special session this summer, gives local authorities more power to regulate fires on private property. Officials can prohibit or restrict fires, designate areas where fires are not permitted and regulate fires in other ways to lessen the likelihood of fire.
The law also increases penalties for violating bans and restrictions, said Garth Lucero, spokesman for State Attorney General Ken Salazar. Violations are now Class 2 misdemeanors punishable by a mandatory fine of $250 to $1,000 and up to a year in prison.
People who purposely set wildfires during a fire ban can be charged with a Class 6 felony punishable by a penalty of $1,000 to $100,000 and up to 18 months in prison.
The only exceptions to this law are open burning in conjunction with farming, governmental operations, prescribed burns under the direction of the state forester and on tribal lands.
The new law also creates a new Class 3 felony for people who intentionally start wildfires or put another person’s life or home in jeopardy by starting a fire.
This crime is punishable by a fine of $3,000 to $750,000 and a jail sentence of up to 12 years.
Municipalities also have the power to regulate the use of fireworks.
The law increases penalties against those who illegally start fires on state parks and recreation land. Prior to the law being enacted, fines were set at $100.
Now they will range from $250 to $1,000 and will be mandatory. It will also become a felony to violate a fire ban and start a fire on state parks and recreation lands. This felony is punishable by a fine of $1,000 to $100,000 and an 18-month prison term.
The state forester also gets some additional authority under the new law.
Currently, the forester authorizes controlled burns during drought periods, but must abide by state or local fire bans. Foresters will be exempt from criminal prosecution related to those fires, as well.
House Bill 02S-1001 awards triple damages to people injured by a fire knowingly set during times of drought or extreme fire danger. Such damages, awarded in civil cases, are not applicable to agricultural operations or people conducting legal controlled fires.
County bans on fireworks can now include a provision banning the sale of fireworks in areas of high fire danger or drought.
Senate Bill 02S-012 makes it a crime to throw burning materials from a car on a highway.
House Bill 02S-1025 creates a new wildfire emergency response fund within the state treasury. When the fund is appropriated money, the state forester can use those funds to pay for the first aerial tanker flight to a wildfire at the request of any county sheriff, fire department or fire protection district.
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