Escaping burn-offs cause havoc

UNDER CONTROL: A stubble burnoff creates huge clouds near Rakaia.
UNDER CONTROL: A stubble burnoff creates huge clouds near Rakaia.

Canterbury farmers failing to supervise winter burn-offs escaping into hedges, buildings and plantations could be out of pocket by hundreds of thousands of dollars in fire control costs.

Trees toppled by last year's big winds on farms and lifestyle blocks were being put to the match, but fires to large logs, stumps and branches could take weeks to die out.

Callouts have been on the rise the past three weeks from winds fanning unchecked embers and escaping.

Two hay barns were lost in Hurunui and one of them was from a small bonfire appearing to be under control until embers blew onto a shed.

Waimakariri rural fire teams have responded to 10 fires reigniting over the same period in damp and cold conditions. They were all controlled fires which had been put out and started again by wind.

In the Ashley district storm debris lit several days beforehand had begun burning again when the wind picked up and ignited a haystack, a 650 metre shelter belt and a large amount of animal feed. Embers landing on the other side of a main road started small blazes which had to put out by rural volunteers.

The same winds in Ashburton blew the remains of a controlled fire to the corner of a commercial tree plantation.

The only reason the runaway fire had not spread further was a digger contractor was on site to help put it out.

In another "nasty" fire, a stump burn in Kaikoura extended to a hay barn, implement shed and embers went into the air vent of a vehicle owned by a passing motorist who had stopped.

Northern South Island Regional Rural Fire Committee chairman Allan Grigg said the fires were preventable.

Fire risk readings were traditionally low at this time of the year because it was usually cool and damp, but this had caused people to become complacent and leave ashes which were reigniting into secondary fires, he said.

Grigg, the principal rural fire officer for the Hurunui District Council, said burning programmes had increased as farmers disposed of large branches, trunks and stumps taken down by last year's storms.

"Generally that tends to be fairly safe, but when the wind blows up it can catch people out particularly when the winds are from the northwest and that can blow the embers onto valuable structures which can catch fire even in the damp and that's why we are getting these fires."

Fire starters were responsible for covering costs to control fires which could extend to more than $1 million.

A fire mainly in a forest plantation in 2010 which took four helicopters over two days to put out cost $360,000 which was only retrieved last year in an out-of- court settlement.

A bill of $170,000 has yet to be recovered for a fire last year, also in the Hurunui district, caused during September storms.

Insurance would not cover a fire lit illegally or without a permit outside of the open fire season.

Grigg said rural fire teams were required to send the bill to whoever was responsible and until this was settled ratepayers bore the cost.

He said landowners were generally being responsible about lighting fires and attending to them, but were failing to monitor ashes sufficiently.

"These fires are still a risk several weeks after they seem to have burned out as these big stumps and large branches can still be burning. There are even cases of them smouldering for months and reigniting in the right conditions".

A woman who placed ashes in a steel bucket got caught out by spreading them in a garden near a hedge on the outskirts of Amberley. A few days later the hedge caught fire when embers were fanned by southwesterly winds on a damp day.

"The common denominator is the wind," said Grigg.

"The advice to anybody having a fire and spreading ashes is to check first before the wind starts and a few hours after the wind."

He said rural fire services supported controlled fires as a land management tool as long as they were carefully managed and people understood the dangers and their responsibilities.

Volunteer fire fighters receive funding for equipment, but were not funded to put fires out.

The Press