Some years ago, my neighbor, a young married man, started to burn a pile of brush on some property adjoining our subdivision. The fire flashed up through the 10-foot high pile of ultra-dry branches. It quickly jumped to the dry weeds and sagebrush. I will never forget the sheer panic on his face. In just minutes he had a little wildfire and a potential tragedy for his neighbors on his hands. Fortunately, the fire-fighters arrived within minutes and saved us from what could have been a conflagration.
Both statutory and common law impose responsibility for damage caused by negligence, reckless behavior, and intentional conduct. Negligence is to act or fail to act like a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances. For example, people are being held civilly and criminally liable for causing death or serious injury because they were texting while driving. To text while driving is illegal and can have horrific consequences. The legislature has now declared the standard for negligence with respect to texting while driving.
A major consideration in allocating liability for an activity is its relative utility or benefit. For instance, accidents which occur in a Good Samaritan effort to help are usually viewed with leniency, whereas setting off fireworks to celebrate a summer holiday has little offsetting benefit when compared to the potential for loss of life and property in a wildfire, even though this is a fun part of American culture.
The public seems to concur with the Governor that target shooters who start a wildfire, though inadvertently, must be held responsible for the costs and damages caused by the fire resulting from their actions.
I firmly believe that we should seek private or voluntary, community-derived solutions before government is compelled to step in. We all need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions. There is no substitute for wisdom and discretion. How many times have I seen parents keep their children from doing something just because they didn't feel good about it, thereby avoiding consequences they'd regret.
I would be remiss not to mention the wonderful spirit of helping and sacrifice Utahns have displayed in these many fires. So many have extended kindness and compassion to the victims. Thanks to all who have done so.
I ask you to be careful and responsible as you enjoy this summer holiday season. Remember before shooting a gun, lighting fireworks, or lighting a campfire, YOU could start a wildfire and YOU could be held responsible. You simply cannot anticipate what's going to happen. Like my neighbor, we may think we can control what we start, but this summer's huge wildfires have already proven that to be wrong.