Warning over stubble burnoff

TAKE CARE: A farmer burns off stubble on a farm near Methven.
TAKE CARE: A farmer burns off stubble on a farm near Methven.

Fire authorities want farmers to think of their neighbours before they set the first match to 20,000 hectares of crop stubble in Mid-Canterbury next year.

The authorities have told farmers that emergency callouts for 22 fire escapes from stubble burning was too many this year and prosecutions could result if serious neglect was proven.

Ashburton District Council principal rural fire officer Don Geddes said most farmers took stubble burning seriously, but there were cases where farmers had inadequate water or "suppression" equipment in the event of a fire getting out of control.

"I think there is 20,000ha of stubble burnt in this district and we were called out to about 22 fires. Obviously there are other fire escapes, but there are guys with adequate suppression resources who can put the fires out themselves which is great.

"If they haven't got adequate fire suppression once it gets out of the fire break they are powerless to do anything about it."

The callouts were above the 10-13 incidents usually handled by fire services. A series of fires at the peak required 300 voluntary hours to control and cost $127,000 during strong northwesterly winds.

The Ashburton district council requires farmers to have a fire break a minimum of five metres wide around a stubble paddock and cleared of combustible material with fires to be lit at a maximum wind speed of 15 kilometres an hour. This differs from the Selwyn district council which has set a 10m fire break and a maximum 20km/hr wind speed.

Stubble should be topped by a mower for fire breaks with loose straw raked and ploughed to prevent fires from spreading. Clearing a break with a grubber and leaving stubble standing was unacceptable.

Geddes said most fire escapes occurred when people had inadequate fire breaks and fire equipment and misjudged wind speed conditions or rushed to burn stubble before an approaching southerly front.

"I have seen people light up stubble fires with 40 litres (of water) on a quad bike thinking this is sufficient," said Geddes at a Foundation for Arable Research field day at Chertsey. "Will that stop an escape? No. Think about your neighbours and a fire destroying shelter belts and sheds. We are appealing to your better nature."

The council is looking at farmers carrying a minimum of 500l of water and at least a 20m hose.

Farmers should ideally backburn at the downwind end of a paddock next to a fire break at short intervals before setting alight the bulk of the stubble to reduce the risk of a fire escape.

During an open fire season burners still have a duty to look after fire and require a permit with conditions during a restricted fire period. Fires are forbidden during total prohibition.

An offender could face a maximum prison sentence of seven years if arson is proven - defined as fire recklessly lit that damages other people's property - and danger to life carries heavier sentences.

Instant infringements of $500 can be issued by council officers for incidents such as a hedge catching fire.

Environment Canterbury had allowed stubble burning to continue in the short to medium term, said Geddes.

The Press