Brown pays cost to fight '04 fire

Henry Brown

Four years after a fire on U.S. Rep. Henry Brown's farm spread to the Francis Marion National Forest, the congressman and the federal government have settled up and cleared the air.

Brown recently paid $4,747.16 to cover the cost of fighting the fire on 20 acres of national forest land in March 2004, and the case is closed.

As a result of this case, which included allegations of threats and counter-charges, the U.S. Forest Service has changed its policy on fines for prescribed fires that get out of control.

Now, the Forest Service said there has to be criminal negligence in a controlled burn case before anyone is liable for firefighting costs.

In March 2004, Brown was doing a controlled burn on his land near Cordesville, east of Moncks Corner in northwest Berkeley County. The breeze picked up and the fire spread into the Francis Marion, which abuts Brown's property.

A prescribed burn is a way to keep a forest healthy. A burn clears ground debris, pine needles and fallen branches, and gets rid of lower tree limbs. The Forest Service does controlled burns regularly in the Francis Marion. Private landowners often do the same.

But because the Forest Service found Brown liable, he was told he would have to pay about $5,000 for the cost of putting out the fire.

Brown fought it, and some whistle blowers claimed he threatened the agency's funding. Brown said he wanted a just policy, not special treatment.

The issue was put on hold while the Forest Service reviewed its policies.

The debate has continued internally at the Forest Service since that time.

Allison Stewart, national press officer for the Forest Service, said the agency ultimately decided to dismiss all penalties and late fees charged to Brown because the case had been helpful in revising policies.

"He was actually doing a good thing," Stewart said. "There was no intent, it was an accident."

That distinction did not exist when Brown was billed for fighting the fire.

Brown said Thursday that he was glad to finally have the matter resolved, and was pleased by the resulting statute change.

"It won't help me, but it will help other people who are victims of acts of God," Brown said. "They didn't have a no-fault option in their regulations."

Brown said Forest Service officials told him they did not want any policy in place that discourages landowners from doing controlled burns to keep forests healthy.

"It's just good forestry management practice," Brown said.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.