Investigations
   

Wildland Fire Cost Recovery and Investigation Program

 
About 85 percent of all wildfires that occur annually in Washington are human-caused. The majority of those human caused fires could have been avoided.
 
By law, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must recover costs associated with the suppression of wildfires that occur on the 13 million acres of state-owned or private forestland that are in the department’s protection—if those fires were considered to be criminally or negligently caused.
 
DNR’s Wildfire Division is responsible for fire suppression, fire protection, fire management, cost recovery and wildfire investigation oversight.

Solving the puzzle

DNR is required under the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Chapter 76.04 to investigate all wildland forest fires that occur within the Department’s areas of protection. The agency is to recover fire suppression costs from responsible parties that are associated with the criminal or negligent cause of those fires.
 
 
The Department shall: “Investigate the origin and cause of all forest fires to determine whether either a criminal act or negligence by any person, firm or corporation caused the starting, spreading or existence of the fire.”
 

A wildfire’s point of origin

The precise location where the ignition source came into contact with the material first ignited and sustained combustion occurred. DNR investigators apply technical skills and a set of standardized scientific methodologies —practices that have been peer-reviewed and have received general acceptance by the profession. They employ a systematic methodology used in the science and engineering disciplines. This includes:
  • Gathering data and facts
  • Analyzing data and facts
  • Drawing conclusions based upon analysis
Proper and timely investigations of the origin and cause help clearly identify the ignition source, first materials ignited, ignition factors and the responsible party. Fire suppression cost recoveries normally follow when negligence or criminal intent is determined.

Cost Recovery

Wildfires can be expensive to suppress. The severity of the fire, the terrain, the threat to forest lands, humans, wildlife, structures and other assets helps to determine the level and urgency of the suppression effort.
 
Of the 85 percent of wildfires that occur in Washington’s state and private forests that are human caused, about 52 percent are determined to have been negligently or intentionally started.
 
If DNR investigators determine that the origin and cause of the fire is negligent and/or criminal, the responsible individual(s) will be notified by DNR of our intent to recover the suppression costs of the fire from them, as required by law. As a result, the recovery of costs associated with these wildfires often requires litigation at various levels.
 
The department may pursue criminal charges against those individuals responsible for causing wildfires for violations of RCW 9A.48, RCW 76.04, WAC 332.24 or other statutes or ordinances where enforcement is necessary for the protection of state and privately owned forestlands and other property that falls under the department’s wildfire jurisdiction. If criminal charges are pursued, DNR normally will request criminal restitution for the costs associated with the suppression of the fire.
 
The simplest way to avoid having to pay any wildfire suppression cost recoveries is to ‘burn smart’ when you have to burn, and ensure your legal fire is completely extinguished prior to leaving it unattended.

Public Disclosure of wildfire investigation reports

Once an investigator completes a wildland forest fire investigation, he or she writes an investigation report and forwards it to his or her supervisor for review.
 
The supervisor reviews the investigation report and makes a recommendation as to whether or not the case file is complete. If the investigation needs follow up to gather more information, the case is either returned to the lead investigator or reassigned. If the case file is considered to be complete by the supervisor or state forester, the case is considered to be a public document pursuant to RCW 42.56.
 
To obtain a wildland forest fire case file, contact DNR’s Public Disclosure Program Administrator via email at publicdisclosure@dnr.wa.gov, by FAX (360) 902-1789 or directly at (360) 902-1393.