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Fire Hazards

Published: 29th August 2017

Author: Neil Dent, Gifford Devine

Published in: Rural e.Speaking | Issue #24

Look after your property

Four years ago we published an article about the risk of fire in the rural sector and the consequences of not holding appropriate insurance cover (Rural eSpeaking, Issue 12, Winter–Spring 2013). The number of rural fires throughout the country seems to be increasing each year.

Gisborne fire

Recently Stuff reported on a case in Gisborne[1] where the Gisborne District Council was found by a judge to have acted negligently by “failing to address a fire hazard on its block of land” when a fire began on the land and caused damage to the neighbouring sawmill owned by Double J Smallwoods Limited. The judge ordered the council to pay Double J Smallwoods’ owners more than $875,000 in damages for the loss caused by the fire, which had occurred some seven years before.

The council’s property and the sawmill border each other and, when the fire started allegedly on the council land, the sawmill owners sued the council. They alleged the council had allowed grass and weeds on its land to become overgrown and that posed a fire hazard. They argued that if the council had kept the land cleared and maintained properly the fire hazard would have been much reduced and, therefore, the risk of this fire spreading would also have been much reduced.

The council said that vegetation is a normal and reasonable use of land, and that the fire wasn’t started by them. KiwiRail also had adjoining land and there was some issue as to whether the fire started on the KiwiRail land. This was of interest, because in 2001 the council had actually written to KiwiRail saying that, in the council’s opinion, the condition of KiwiRail’s land posed a fire hazard and, in particular, “this type of overgrowth is dangerous, particularly when next to a timber yard.” This correspondence by the council came back to haunt it as apparently the council’s land was in exactly the same condition. The council is appealing the judge’s decision.

Implications for rural dwellers

The main point here is that for the rural community, you’re facing the same issues that are in the Gisborne case.

There is also the problem of changing land use. The Hawkes Bay fires last summer spread through areas forested with pine trees; 50 years ago those same areas would have been drier and devoid of any grass over summer leaving little or nothing to burn. In the Port Hills fire situation in Christchurch in February this year, lifestyle developments in the area have also changed the use of that land.

What the Gisborne case does show, is that a risk of liability for fire is real and doesn’t necessarily involve any positive act on a landowner to incur liability. The need to ensure that the fire risk is properly mitigated is clear and, while the need to effect and maintain proper insurance cover is obviously a necessity, prevention is always better than cure. The mere fact that vegetation might be natural and it’s a reasonable use of land does not necessarily protect an owner against liability.

As an aside, the reason that the sawmill owners themselves needed to take action against the council was that they were under-insured; they needed to pursue the council on their own account for their losses.


[1]   Double J Smallwoods Ltd v Gisborne District Council [2017] NZHC 1284

 

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