In many of the rural parts of our state, it’s not uncommon for property owners to burn vegetation or other materials on their property. Although these burnings are regulated and are typically performed without incident, they do pose some hazards. Indeed, in a recent decision, Grant v. Georgia Forestry Comm., the Georgia Court of Appeals needed to determine what, if any, liability existed against the Georgia Forestry Commission for an auto accident caused, in part, by smoke from a regulated burning.
The accident at issue in this case occurred in the early morning of March 17, 2011. On the day before, the Georgia Forestry Commission (“GFC”) issued a burn permit to a property owner who lived near Interstate 16 and wished to burn vegetation on his land. At around 3 p.m. that day, the local Chief Ranger of the Bulloch County GFC fire protection unit received notice of a fire on that property. When he arrived, the ranger observed the fire burning out of control and initiated measures to contain and monitor the fire. Among these measures were the posting of smoke/fog warning signs and the placement of local deputies to handle traffic issues. At around 7 p.m. that day, the Chief Ranger determined that the blaze had been contained, although the burned area continued to smoke. The Chief Ranger saw the smoke drifting toward the southeast away from I-16, which was about three-quarters of a mile to the north of the closest part of the burn area, and he reported seeing no visibility issues on either I-16 or another local thoroughfare. The Chief Ranger nevertheless called 911 to provide notice of smoke in the area and directed the the local county sheriff to continue to monitor the situation. At around 5 p.m. that day, a local official for the Georgia Department of Transportation (“GDOT”) also responded to notice of the fire and placed warning signs in both directions on a local state road. The GDOT official returned to the area at 7:45 and reported no visibility issues but left the signs in place.