September 26 2017


We live in a region that gets very dry in summer. Last year’s fire that spread through areas forested with pine trees was a good wake up call for people living in rural Hawke’s Bay. You need to prepare for fire danger, not only to protect people and property, but in terms of liability and insurance. Here’s the case that made rural fires a hot topic.

The cost of failing to address fire hazards

In a recent case, a judge found the Gisborne District Council acted negligently by “failing to address a fire hazard on its block of land.” A fire broke out on GDC land and caused damage to neighbouring Double J Smallwoods Limited’s sawmill. The judge ordered the council to pay Double J Smallwoods’ owners more than $875,000 in damages for the loss caused by the fire.

The GDC land and the sawmill share a border. Double J Smallwoods alleged the council had allowed its land to become overgrown with weeds and grass posing a fire hazard. They argued that if the council had kept the land properly maintained, it wouldn’t have been as much of a fire hazard and the chance of fire spreading would have been greatly reduced.

The council argued that vegetation is a normal and reasonable use of land. They also disputed the fire started on their land, as the adjoining land, owned by KiwiRail, was also a possible cause of the fire. Ironically, the GDC wrote to KiwiRail in 2001, saying that in their opinion, the condition of KiwiRail’s land was a potential fire hazard. Specifically, they said, “this type of overgrowth is dangerous, particularly when next to a timber yard.”

The council is appealing the judge’s decision, despite the allegations its land was in the same condition.

What does this mean for people living and working in rural areas?

The number of rural fires throughout the country seems to be increasing each year. As well as the pine tree fires of last summer, there was also the Port Hills fire situation in Christchurch earlier this year. 

People living and working in the rural communities are faced with the same issues as the Gisborne case. With the changing way we use land, you need to look after your property to minimise the risk of fire. As we see more lifestyle developments and planting of pine forests, for example, there is more fuel and opportunity for outbreaks of fire in rural areas.

The Gisborne case demonstrates the risk of liability for fire is real, even without the landowner necessarily having taken some action to cause fire. Vegetation needs to be managed to ensure the fire risk is properly mitigated. What the Gisborne case shows us is that regardless of natural vegetation or reasonable use of land, you’re not necessarily protected from liability.

As a cautionary aside, the sawmill owners took action against the council because they were under-insured and needed to account for their losses. While you still need adequate insurance cover in case of fire, prevention is always better than cure.

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