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Arizona bill seeks immunity from fire lawsuits

PHOENIX -- Arizona legislators are considering a bill that would grant the state immunity from millions of dollars of lawsuits similar to those filed after last year's deadly Yarnell Hill Fire.

The Senate appropriations committee Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would require the state Land Department to take measures to prevent fires like the one that claimed 19 firefighters last year. The bill also would remove liability from the state and state employees who fail to carry out those measures and whose negligence results in another fire.

The Yarnell Hill Fire destroyed more than 100 homes in an area northwest of Phoenix. All but one of the 20 Hotshots on a Prescott-based firefighting crew died June 30 when flames overtook their position near Yarnell.

In January, the city of Prescott denied more than 100 damage claims seeking $662 million for property owners and relatives of deceased firefighters.

"This is a small attempt and a small move in the direction of forest safety and the protection of our state lands," Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, said.

But opponents say the bill would unjustly get the state off the hook in future instances of negligence.

Claims against several governmental agencies for losses from the Yarnell Hill Fire allege that that firefighting efforts were negligent and reckless, and they refer frequently to a workplace safety report that resulted in citations against the State Forestry Division. The division is contesting the citations.

While state officials have declined to comment on the claims, Prescott has said the city is not liable for the deaths or property losses.

"If state employees or the state are irresponsible, if there is gross negligence, all those things they ought to be held liable and accountable for it," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

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