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From Fire Comes Life: Why Courts Assessing Forest Fire Damages Should Recognize Ecological Benefits

July 2016

Citation: 46 ELR 10608

Issue: 7

Author: Amanda Hemmerich

Recent court decisions have awarded the federal government substantial recovery for damages from forest fires caused by a private party’s negligent conduct. In traditional forest fire cases, plaintiffs typically recovered response and suppression costs, in addition to compensation for the value of damaged timber or restoration costs. By framing forest fire impacts as “natural resource damages” and “intangible environmental damages,” the federal government has recovered increasingly large amounts for alleged harm to the environment and the value of lost ecosystem services. But a significant point of contention is whether there is injury to the natural environment or loss of ecological services following an unintentional forest fire that mimics a naturally occurring fire regime. Fire is an integral part of ecological landscapes and should be distinguished from traditional natural resource damages because of its beneficial effects. Forest fire damages should be evaluated under a framework that factors both beneficial and adverse impacts into recovery.

Amanda Hemmerich is a 2016 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law. Prior to attending law school, she was a wildland firefighter.

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