The damage resulting from wildland fire is most obvious when homes, outbuildings, vehicles and equipment, fences, and livestock are affected. The costs associated with repairing or replacing tangible items lost in a wildland fire can be quantified for the purposes of insurance claims and during litigation when an at-fault party is identified and costs need to be recovered. Cost estimates for October’s devastating northern California wine country fires, which destroyed thousands of buildings and other infrastructure, are currently at more than $3 billion.
On the other hand, the costs associated with damage to natural habitats, forests, rangelands, and wildlife species that have been lost or displaced by wildland fire are much more difficult to quantify. In many cases, the presence of the natural habitat or wildlife has a high intrinsic value for the landowner and they should consider seeking compensation for this loss along with the loss of tangible items.
In wildland fire litigation cases, the objective is to recover the costs associated with returning the property to its pre-fire condition. In the case of a private landowner whose property supported high-quality natural habitat, habitat occupied by an endangered species, or prime browsing or migratory habitat for deer or elk, the costs associated with returning the habitat to pre-fire conditions also needs to be determined.
This can be a daunting task because formulation of the costs of restoring the habitat must consider the length of time it takes to return the habitat to the same distribution on the property, the same age or size class of vegetation, the same structure, and the same diversity of plant species. The recovery costs also need to include labor, material, and equipment costs to do the planting, to install and maintain the irrigation system, to remove weeds and nonnative or invasive plant species, and to monitor the habitat until it achieves the pre-fire condition.
An added difficulty in litigation cases is that there is often a significant time lag between when the fire occurs and when the case is settled. In areas affected by wildland fires, nonnative and invasive plant species become a serious problem because these species typically take hold and spread quickly, often creating so much competition that the native plants cannot regenerate and survive. Assessing the costs of restoring natural habitats after wildland fire is typically done early in the litigation process, and the on-the-ground conditions related to the density and distribution of nonnative and invasive plants are often quite different at the time of settlement. Therefore, projecting the costs and the length of time necessary to control the nonnative and invasive plants, both initially and for the long term, is a critical component of determining a fair compensation for the damaged landowner.
ECORP has provided wildland fire litigation support for multiple fires in California and we can easily apply our expertise to fire incidents throughout the United States. We can assist our clients with the following services for their wildland fire projects:
- Evaluation of wildland fire damage and preparation of wildland fire damage assessments
- Preparation of post-fire restoration plans and invasive species control plans
- Litigation support
- Technical expertise and expert witness testimony