Farmers Could Be Billed For Careless Burn-Offs

  • Jack Elder
Internal Affairs

Farmers who lose control of burn-offs on their properties are being warned they may be held responsible for the resulting costs of firefighting.

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Jack Elder, says the National Rural Fire Authority will pursue cost recovery wherever possible and this could be a serious issue for farmers who have not insured adequately for firefighting costs.

Mr Elder issued his warning during a visit with the Chairman of the National Rural Fire Authority, Roger Estall, to the site of last week's fire in the Big Ben Range in Canterbury.

A major wildfire in this area on September 13 damaged 450 hectares of tussock grassland, alpine scrub and regenerating beech. The wildfire started from a planned burn, crossed into a neighbouring farm and also burned into a conservation area. Fire fighting costs exceeded $120,000.

Mr Elder said several recent hill and high country wildfires were caused by carelessness during planned burn-offs. They were a legacy from last season's El Nino summer of continuing dry conditions in a number of areas.

"Even though there has been winter rain and snow, the level of risk is being seriously underestimated," Mr Elder said. "Fire danger indices remain high in many areas and the risk is being made worse by changeable high winds.

"Experts tell me that the present La Nina weather cycle will further raise the danger level so I am very concerned."

Mr Elder said that so far this winter, the total area lost to wildfires is over half that lost in the whole of the El Nino summer. Farm land often abutted fragile conservation areas in which wildfire could cause great damage

"I am also concerned at the demands that careless burn-offs place on volunteer fire brigades in neighbouring towns and on rural fire forces," Mr Elder said. "Last summer, a rural firefighter was seriously burned in a wildfire. Carelessness and lack of preparation of planned burn-offs is just not acceptable."

Mr Elder said that under the Forest and Rural Fires Act, land owners who lose control of fires on their property are responsible for the resulting costs of firefighting.

"These costs can be very high and not all farmers have taken the precaution of insuring adequately," he said. "As well, in common law, any one starting a fire can be sued for resulting neighbouring property losses including, for example, loss of land use for grazing.

"I fully appreciate that farmers legitimately use fire as a land management tool. But it is not acceptable if, through lack of care, risk analysis or preparation, others suffer.

"I endorse the concerns of the National Rural Fire Officer and his recommendation that landowners consult closely with their Principal Rural Fire Officer both when planning a burn-off and again on the morning of the fire. They should monitor the weather forecasts throughout the period of the burn."

Mr Elder said the Chairman of the Fire Service Commission, Roger Estall had told him the National Rural Fire Authority will pursue cost recovery wherever possible.