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Burnt by rural fire bill

Published: 4:56PM Wednesday September 02, 2009

Reporter Mary-Jane Aggett

In March last year Rex Steele had a vegetation fire on his property in Muriwai northwest of Auckland. He and his son, Lee, were mowing a grass track with a ride-on mower when the lawnmower caught fire. They immediately dialed 111 and Rex attempted to put the fire out with a shovel. Rex says  he could see the plastic bonnet of the lawnmower was melting and fueling the fire and seconds later the whole thing exploded. He says the local volunteer fire brigade arrived, but their water supply was soon exhausted. He says the fire service then came, but after three hours they had to call in a helicopter with a monsoon bucket, which finally put out the fire. Rex says it was a very frightening time and he wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Keen to forget the experience, Rex was shocked a couple of months later to receive a bill from the National Rural Fire Authority. They wanted the cost of putting out the fire to come from Rex's pocket. He was charged $13,555.90. Rex had no idea he could be liable for the fire as he says it was a genuine accident.

 You don't normally get charged for calling the Fire Service in the city because the cost of fighting these fires is mostly funded by a fire levy on building insurance. But fighting rural fires is different; that's funded by DOC, ratepayers and forest owners. And the National Rural Fire Authority has to recoup costs where it can. So if you start a vegetation fire in the country you can be liable for the costs of putting it out even if you didn't start it recklessly.

What you need to know

  • The cost of fighting a rural vegetation fire will be passed onto the person who caused it - even if it was an accident.
  • Some recreational groups have fire suppression insurance to cover their members when they are in the country - check yours does
  • Check your insurance covers you and family members if you do get charged - you need to ask for Public Liability Insurance as a landowner with a Forest and Rural Fires Act extension.