Arizona wildfire bill sparks huge controversy, state could be protected from wildfire lawsuits

APACHE JUNCTION, AZ - Some people are watching a new bill moving forward very closely - worried it could hurt wildland firefighters.

The bill would let the state of Arizona off the hook from any liability when flames spread out of control.

The measure was introduced less than a year after the Yarnell tragedy.

19 hotshot firefighters lost their lives battling a massive blaze near Prescott last June.

Some firefighters worry this bill is opening some fresh wounds.

They also think it could hurt firefighters.

The wildland division of the Apache Junction Fire District has 25 firefighters specially trained to fight those kinds of fires.

They worry this could be an extreme fire season because of a mild winter and a drought across much of the state.

But something else is on Assistant Chief Mike Farber's mind.

He’s been looking into a new bill that would grant the state immunity from millions of dollars of lawsuits even if state workers made mistakes that lead to deadly wildfires.

Farber said the loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is still very fresh.

“The timing of the bill, it brings back, for a lot of families some really bad memories.

He worries this bill could hurt firefighters.

“My concern is their assets and their people would be protected, but our people would not be,” Farber said.

He’s also concerned about how it could affect firefighters’ families if something goes wrong.

“The potential of the family not being compensated for a loss due to the gross negligence of someone else, that would be a concern,” he said.

The Senate appropriations committee voted to amend House Bill 2343 on Tuesday. It originally just focused on fire prevention efforts.

Proponents of the bill said it protects state lands since it includes guidelines to prevent wildfires.

But others think the bill just protects the state.

“I don't know how that would play up in court, and it would probably get held up for a while in legal battles,” Farber said.

Firefighters we spoke with believe this bill would only apply to firefighters working for the state, like wildland divisions within city fire departments and volunteers.

They don’t think it would affect most hotshot crews who operate under the federal government.

The bill will head to the Senate floor next.

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