State legislators are proposing a law that says the state isn't liable for state employees fulfilling its duties on state land.
Fighting wildfires happens to fall under the scope of that law, and the proposal is no coincidence, as precursors to lawsuits have been filed against the state in recent months by homeowners who lost their homes in the Yarnell Hill Fire, plus a parent of one of the 19 firefighters who died while fighting the fire.
The language of the bill, created as a strike-everything amendment, establishes a program for vegetation removal on state lands, for the purpose of fire suppression and forest management.
However, it also contains the following provision:
Any and all statutory duties and responsibilities under Title 37 are for the benefit and protection of state lands, the Arizona State Land Trust or the public generally and not for the benefit or protection of private property or for the benefit or protection of any individual or class of individuals. The State of Arizona and its employees shall not be liable for acts or omissions of its employees in fulfilling the duties and responsibilities under Title 37.
Title 37 includes all the laws on state lands.
Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, told a Senate committee this week that the immunity provision "looks really bad in the context of a forest bill."
"At the same time you're talking about a [Yarnell] memorial, you're talking about immunity?" she said.
Recall that a $559,000 penalty was assessed against the Arizona State Forestry Division for "serious" safety violations in the Yarnell Hill Fire, after an investigation by the the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
That ADOSH report was referenced in notices of claim filed by Yarnell homeowners, plus a notice of claim filed by the mother of 21-year-old Grant McKee, one of the 19 firefighters who died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. The state is contesting the ADOSH findings.
At a committee meeting this week, Republican Senator Don Shooter said the Attorney General's office requested the bill language, but an assistant AG said it came from a state agency. The AG's office represents state agencies.
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Although the bill passed the committee, several senators indicated it's possible that the bill will be amended further on the Senate floor.
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