Highest fire risk in 20 years prompts Northland patrols

Highest fire risk in 20 years prompts Northland patrols

7 January 2010

published by www.nzherald.co.nz

New Zealand — Northland’s fire risk is at its highest level in more than 20 years, prompting a fire boss to send patrols out to prosecute anyone caught ignoring widespread bans.

Total fire bans have been declared across Northland but the danger is most acute in the Far North, where principal rural fire officer Lance Johnston said he hadn’t seen the district as dry since the early 1980s – making the kind of destructive wildfires seen in Australia a possibility.

Despite the extreme risk to life and property, people were still starting fires.

“We’ve had a complete gutsful. People are not taking on board the weather conditions – in these conditions anyone who lights any fire is bloody stupid.

“Right now the ground is so volatile, it’s like it’s had petrol poured on it,” he said.

Starting yesterday Mr Johnston had instructed his warranted rural fire officers to patrol the district looking for signs of smoke or fires, taking details and initiating prosecutions.

The council had set aside the money needed to start legal proceedings, with the maximum penalties for breaching a fire ban a $2000 fine or six months’ jail. They could also be made to pay the fire fighting costs.

Among the close calls this week was an attempt to burn off cut scrub by an Auckland man camping on family land at Mangakahia Rd, Awarua, with his wife, daughter and grandchildren.

Within minutes of lighting the fire on Tuesday afternoon, it had torn through grass and dry scrub, destroying the family’s caravan and tent.

But the 48-year-old, who would not give his name, is “counting his lucky stars” after firefighters stopped the blaze about 10m short of a neighbour’s house.

“They said it was lucky there was a creek nearby they could pump from. Otherwise it could have also got into the pines, and then they would have called in a helicopter costing $2000 an hour.”

The man said he didn’t know about the fire ban and was horrified to see how quickly the blaze had spread.

He said he expected to pay a fine or firefighting costs, and had learned a harsh lesson. Around the same time Kaikohe firefighters were called to another blaze, this time at Hillcrest Rd on the western edge of town.

In that case Mr Johnston said the landowner knew about the fire ban, but said he could do what he liked on his own property. He was also likely to be prosecuted.

Several other fires recently had been “knocked over pretty quickly” but could have done serious damage – in particular a blaze close to homes at Takou Bay, and a series of small fires around Paihia.

Mr Johnston said the excuse of not knowing about the fire ban was wearing thin, with signs up on main roads all over the district, plus daily notices in newspapers and on radio. The only exceptions are gas-fired barbecues.

Meanwhile, the cost of fighting a fire that destroyed 33ha of mature pine trees in the Utakura Forest, South Hokianga, is likely to top $200,000 – not counting the value of the trees.

The fire started on Christmas Eve and was only declared out on Monday, with 38 rural fire volunteers missing out on Christmas because they were battling the blaze.

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