New Zealand — Northland’s biggest fire so far this summer has cost about $650,000 to put out. And that doesn’t include the value of trees destroyed when a burn-off lit by a worker on a government employment scheme spread into the White Cliffs forest near Horeke on November 21.
Just under 350ha of the 1400ha pine forest was burned in the blaze and a marae and several homes were threatened but only one house suffered minor damage.
Northern principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said all contractors had been paid for their work during the Horeke fire and the blaze at Karikari nine days later, which destroyed at least two homes and claimed the lives of a helicopter pilot and a Department of Conservation ranger.
However, staff were still calculating exactly how much each fire had cost to put out.
He estimated the final cost of the Horeke fire would be about $650,000 but possibly as much as $700,000.
A large proportion of that would be for operating five helicopters with monsoon buckets, which cost an estimated $120,000 for the first 24 hours alone. A cost estimate for the Karikari fire is expected next week.
The cost of putting out the fires will initially be met by the Far North District Council – ratepayers, in other words – but 95 per cent is expected to reimbursed by the National Rural Fire Authority’s firefighting fund. A claim is due to be lodged next week.
In the case of the Horeke fire that would still leave Far North ratepayers footing a bill of more than $30,000.
It will then be up to the authority to try to recover the money from the person who started the fire.
It is understood the fire started when a man clearing vegetation for a cycle trail next to Horeke Rd lit a small burn-off. He was employed by a community trust which was contracted to the Ministry of Social Development and was working on a Far North District Council project; the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.
Most of the money in the rural firefighting fund comes from insurance levies, with the Department of Conservation chipping in a third.
Anyone who takes out home, property or car insurance pays a fire levy; a small proportion of which goes into the fund.
Gary Lockyer, operations manager at the authority, said the Fire Service Act gave them the mandate to recover costs.
It had been “reasonably successful” in the past, usually settling out of court. However, it depended on the person’s ability to pay.
In case of the Horeke fire, the authority would examine the full circumstances – but the law was quite specific that the cost could be recovered only from the person who lit the fire.
Many contractors, farmers and rural property owners had insurance to cover them if they accidentally started a serious fire, Mr Lockyer said.
In rare cases, the authority could order the sale of a person’s property or put a hold over a mortgage.
Two months after the fire began, White Cliffs forest is still being regularly patrolled by firefighters. It could take until winter before it is declared officially extinguished.
The forest’s main shareholder, William Taylor of Northcote, in Auckland, declined to comment on the value of lost trees or whether he would try to recover his costs.