This topic has come up a few times, and the Missoulian did a little legal research on it for us, but I think it’s incomplete. In short, federal agencies are protected by sovereign immunity against claims of damages, and its employees are protected when performing their official duties – even if negligent. What this article doesn’t make very clear is that the government has consented to be sued for negligence through the Federal Tort Claims Act: “Under the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680 , individuals who are injured or whose property is damaged by the wrongful or negligent act of a federal employee acting within his or her official duties may file a claim with the government for reimbursement for that injury or damage.”
In the Davis Fire example, the article says the court found that “the United States was immune from the litigation.” But then it seems to address the question of negligence: “In the government’s review of the Davis fire, it found that Forest Service officials had adequate training, followed proper protocols and ignited the fire within the prescription parameters of the burn plan.” (I couldn’t find the actual opinion.) So, while this story makes the FS look pretty bad, on another set of facts that show negligence, private landowners should be able to recover damages.