Couple face $1m bill for blaze

Last updated 12:13 16/05/2013
Tracey Lynch
HEAVY PRICE: Tracey Lynch, who faces a $1m fire bill with her husband Steve Garnett.

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Dumping ashes outside, causing a fire that destroyed a home and forest, has resulted in a Tadmor couple being successfully sued for more than $1 million.

A High Court judgment means Steve Garnett and Tracey Lynch must pay Nelson Forests $488,944, the Fire Service Commission $571,593 and Waimea Rural Fire Committee $31,289, plus interest from 2009.

A seven-day deadline demand from Nelson Forests expired on Monday and the couple are already packing their possessions but not wanting to move.

Fire Service national rural fire officer Murray Dudfield said it would also pursue payment. The use of helicopters and contractors had contributed to the cost of fighting the fire and they needed to be paid.

A public appeal, organised by a friend, has opened to help the couple pay with a goal of $1.3 million by June 14, and so far has $2670.

The couple bought their rural property, which backs on to Kahurangi National Park, 13 years ago and built three tourist cabins to run as a bed and breakfast business through their company Three Tuis.

In November 2009, Mr Garnett dumped the ashes from a cabin woodburner after a visiting couple had stayed there.

That afternoon a fire, driven by a strong breeze, spread 4.7 kilometres to the north, destroying a forest owned by Nelson Forests and a neighbouring home.

In the High Court decision, Justice Forrest Miller said the central dispute was whether the dumped ashes were hot.

The judge did not accept that Mr Garnett had checked them closely for embers.

In his judgment, he said Mr Garnett had conceded when first interviewed that he had been in a hurry that day. He had since conducted experiments using the same woodburner and all produced large embers or charcoal, as did experiments conducted by others.

"While I thought Mr Garnett a decent man, he was not a reliable witness. An adverse judgment will surely ruin him, and I think that knowledge led him first to convince himself that the ashes cannot have been the cause, then to speculate on any other cause, however unlikely. He sought to resile from a statement that he made at the time of the fire, and he embellished earlier statements in ways that I found implausible," Justice Miller said.

He said the couple had chosen not to insure the Three Tuis business because of the cost, relying instead on safety precautions.

Justice Miller concluded that both defendants were liable to the plaintiffs.

Ms Lynch, a travel agent in Nelson, said they had to come up with more than $1.2m or everything would be taken from them. "We will walk away with no home and no money."

She likened it to a David and Goliath legal battle and said they were devastated. "We don't know what's going to happen," she said, and their legal aid had ended with the judgment. "I'm like a fish out of water."

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She expected an assessment would be made of their assets. "We're expecting them to take everything apart from our furniture and clothes."

They had started packing personal possessions.

She advised property owners to ensure they had insurance and understood the extent of its coverage.

"And make sure you put your ash in water, no matter even if you think it is cold, douse it," she said.

She said they were grateful to her friend, Graham Manson, of Stoke, who has set up a crowd funding online site savetriple for donations. He said it was a way for people to help and would give the couple some hope.

The couple had legal aid for the High Court hearing and their lawyer Rob Ord called it a tragic case.

"This case was never not going to go to trial. They couldn't afford to pay and the other side did not negotiate realistically.

"It would be really useful if the Fire Service stopped giving out half-hearted recommendations and put a big message about putting out ashes in water so people don't have mixed messages. Some clarity is needed so the public is under no illusion."

Mr Dudfield said the Fire Service had been proactive with rural fire authorities, advising of the need to insure against potential risk. "Any fire in a rural area is avoidable. We try to encourage property owners to take preventative action."

The couple's case was unfortunate and a good example of what could happen, he said.

The Fire Service Commission would go through a process to find out what could be available in payment from them. "We will do that."

Nelson Forests was unable to comment today.

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- Nelson


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