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Reckless Burning in Washington State

Reckless Burning is a serious crime in Washington, especially when the fire causes wide-scale damage to state or private property.

First, what is Reckless Burning?

Under RCW 9A.48.040, Reckless Burning in the first degree is a class C felony, and occurs when a person recklessly damages a building or other structure or any vehicle, railway car, aircraft, or watercraft or any hay, grain, crop, or timber whether cut or standing, by knowingly causing a fire or explosion. Under RCW 9A.48.050, Reckless Burning in the second degree is a gross misdemeanor, and occurs when a person knowingly causes a fire or explosion, whether on his or her own property or that of another, and thereby recklessly places a building or other structure, or any vehicle, railway car, aircraft, or watercraft, or any hay, grain, crop or timber, whether cut or standing, in danger of destruction or damage. The important difference between first and second degree Reckless Burning is that second degree does not require actual damage to occur. You can still be charged with second degree Reckless Burning if there was only a danger of destruction or damage.

What happens if you are accused of negligently or intentionally starting a wildfire?

According to the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 52% of wildfires that occur in Washington state are negligently or intentionally started. If a fire occurs due to a criminal or negligent cause on the 13 million acres of state-owned or private forestland that are in the Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protection, costs associated with the suppression of wildfires must be recovered. If you are found to be the origin of a negligently or intentionally started wildfire that occurred within the DNR’s authority, you can be charged in criminal court and the DNR can seek to recover the suppression costs associated with the fire. This can be a huge amount of money. For example, in 2018, an Oregon court ordered $36.6 million in restitution for throwing a firework into a canyon because it started a wildfire that burned almost 47,000 acres.

What other kinds of fires fall under Reckless Burning?

Reckless Burning does not only occur in cases of wildfires. In fact, there are a wide variety of situations in which Reckless Burning charges can result, including: starting fires on abandoned properties, burning waste, and lighting a fire too close to flammable materials. For example, the Court in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Thorton found that you can be held liable for Reckless burning if damage occurs because you allowed cigarette ashes to fall to the floor and failed to extinguish the embers.