Issues around use of fire as a land management tool in rural New Zealand
John H Aspinall ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
High Country farmer, member of National Board of Federated Farmers, member of National Rural Fire Advisory Committee
Abstract: This paper discusses the use of fire by farmers as a management tool, and the requirements for a successful burn. It summarizes the agencies involved in fire suppression and management and the factors they consider, and the complexities of integrating the agencies various requirements.
Responsibility for fire control is a very confusing situation. Some improvements in efficiency and accountability are suggested. The paper looks at issues relating to cost recovery, insurance, litigation, liability and levy issues.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss with you the use of fire as a management tool and issues concerning rural New Zealand in relation to fire management and suppression. While some of my subject will be old hat to some of you, very few if any of you will have to deal with all the issues covered. Most of you are highly trained specialists in fire management, control, suppression, administration or research.
Large land managers such as DoC, forest owning companies or Landcorp Farming can employ specialist expertise to manage various aspects of fire management.
However, the average small to medium land manager must be competent to manage all aspects of a very complex situation themselves. Added to this is the tendency for society to become more litigious, with a greater emphasis on cost recovery of ever-larger amounts of money.
Thus the scene is set for concern and confusion among landowners. Landowners can find themselves liable for large sums of money, but with very limited control over events leading up to this liability.
Fire has played a significant role in the evolution of the vegetation cover of New Zealand. It is
known that natural fires played some part in pre human times.
During Maori occupation it is apparent that fire was used to clear land and probably to assist access and in moa hunting. Carbon dating of charcoal shows extensive fires took place during this period. These fires, accompanied probably by climate change, led to large areas of the South Island changing from a forest/shrubland vegetation cover to a tussock grassland cover.
When European sheep farmers arrived in the 1840's and 50's they found extensive tussock grasslands, which when burnt, provided fleshy nutritious regrowth shoots ideal as sheep forage. Fire was also used extensively in the North Island to clear forest and shrublands for pasture and to control regeneration of woody weeds.
Thus fire has played a major role in the evolution of the present vegetation cover, and in fact is responsible for most of the tussock grasslands below the natural tree line.
Over time it was recognised that repeated burning of tussocks at a short interval followed by intensive grazing was weakening the plants to the point where they were being replaced by short tussock species or grassland, or in more recent years by hieracium, an invasive flat weed. Thus tussock burning has declined to a relatively low frequency.
Nowadays fire is still a very important land management tool, but is used much more judiciously than previously. The situations where fire is used are as follows
Agencies involved in fire management
Up to 6 agencies are responsible for managing the use of fire, and 4 of these are responsible for issuing permits.
All this adds up to a logistical nightmare for many farmers. Imagine a high country pastoral lease farmer burning indigenous vegetation at medium altitude and within 1km of DoC or State land. This person will require at least 4 (and possibly 5) consents each looking at different criteria and with differing, sometimes conflicting consent conditions. It is often not possible to fully comply with all conditions and obtain a successful burn.
I believe there should be more co-operation between consenting authorities to issue joint permits.
Permits should become less prescriptive. I believe permits should outline area to be burnt and perhaps a few basic conditions, and leave the detail of when and how to burn to the landowner. This would clearly place responsibility on the owner to determine the best timing and conditions for a successful burn and to be accountable for containing the fire.
Practical Requirements for successful burn
The requirements for a successful burn are often very detailed and will vary from block to block, and even between areas within a block. Factors, which must be considered, include wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and likelihood of changes to these. Also type of vegetation, dryness of vegetation, soil moisture, snow cap and other fire boundaries such as streams, forest, green belts, tracks and roads, firebreaks or simply damp shady faces versus dry sunny faces. Also safety issues such as presence in the area of other people, smoke drift across roads, airstrips, etc. There is also increasing focus on aesthetic factors such as effects on landscape, smoke drift over or onto skifields, effects on film crews and concerns of other recreational users. In settled areas there will be concerns over smoke drift into neighbours back yards. I believe it is seldom possible to prescribe a written recipe to take account of all these factors. Better to rely on the experience of those carrying out the burn to balance these factors, and to be accountable for their own management. In the Upper Clutha area farmers have developed a code of practise with skifield operators. Federated Farmers have developed a code of practice for crop residue burning which aims to promote best management practice to farmers and Councils.
The objective is generally to remove dead litter, trash and woody weeds or rank growth, but with minimal damage to growing crown of desirable species or to soil microbes. This can be achieved by burning when vegetation is dry, but soil still damp and relatively cool. It can be difficult to achieve a clean burn through damp gullies and shady faces, while restricting the fire to an acceptable height on sunny ridges, and compromises often have to be made.
Responsibility for rural fire suppression is a major source of concern and confusion for most rural landowners. It is clear that Fire Service Commission funded brigades are responsible for urban zoned areas and the first hour in other areas. But who then takes control? Clearly on DoC land it is DoC. Where a forest owner is a gazetted fire authority they take charge. On defence land it is sometimes but not always the Ministry of Defence. On other land it is the territorial authority. Or is it? Within 1km of DoC land it is DoC. But DoC have relinquished this responsibility around some reserves in which case it is the territorial authority. Management of marginal strips along streams and water bodies is a DoC responsibility, but the Forest and Rural Fires Act excuses DoC from responsibility for fire control on this land.
Historically territorial authorities have accepted responsibility for fire control on other Crown land. But a recent GIS mapping exercise highlighted to their, and others, surprise that DoC are responsible on and for a 1km margin around areas defined as State land under S2 of the Forest and Rural Fires Act This includes much but not all Crown land. Why are not LINZ responsible for the cost of fire suppression on their own land? To date the rural ratepayer has picked up the cost on behalf of the public of New Zealand.
In my experience many fire managers are not totally clear on the exact areas of responsibility. The situation is incomprehensible to most landowners. I believe DoC should be responsible on DoC land only, Ministry of Defence and where they elect to, Forest Owners, on their land. LINZ should carry the cost on other Crown land and contract the fire suppression to territorial authorities. Territorial Authorities should be responsible on all other land.
Suppression of an out of control fire is an extremely stressful time for any landowner. There is the obvious loss of personal property and possible threat to life, and liability for neighbour's losses, as well as the feeling that one has made a major mistake. Farmers are used to being in control of their own destiny and accountable for their own actions.
It is difficult to accept others taking control with expensive machinery and significant numbers of personnel, all at the owners expense. There is a view that sometimes excessive resources are used, some operations used as a training exercise, some have been described to me as somewhat of a 'gung ho' exercise with 'toys for boys' (and girls). While this is in a minority of cases, they receive wide adverse publicity and are not good for the image of firefighters.
Efficiency and accountability
Federated Farmers have lobbied hard for greater efficiency and accountability in fire suppression.
Some of the particular issues which can be improved on are as follows
As you are well aware, the cost of rural fire suppression over $1000 plus 5% are generally claimed from the Rural Fire Fighting Fund. Where possible NRFA attempt to recover costs from the person who started the fire. Fires started by landowner can often be traced back to the owner so there have been cases pursued where the cause was believed to be a spark from a mower, spark from a hayrake, faulty spark arrester on a tractor and branch blowing off a tree onto power lines. On the other hand, recreational users or passers-by can start a fire, and provided they beat a hasty retreat are likely to get off scott-free.
This means most prudent farmers carry fire suppression insurance. There have been a number of cases where farmers were under insured, often because of poor advice. Federated Farmers believes most farmers should carry a minimum of $200,000 fire suppression insurance and $1m public liability insurance. Some recommend that insurance is only necessary on hill and high country. I do not agree. While fire suppression is normally easier on intensively farmed country, there are much greater assets in a confined area, and losses to other party's property can occur rapidly.
Some fire managers believe cost is not a concern as insurance companies are liable. This attitude is unacceptable, as ultimately someone has to pay. Higher insurance costs simply means higher premiums.
Federated Farmers are concerned that many insurance policies have enough exemption clauses, which enable them to challenge many claims. While some companies adopt an attitude of covering any reasonable claim, others will look for any excuse to avoid payment. This means land managers may not receive their due insurance payment, or they may have to take a court case. This of course, means expensive preparation of evidence, and the case may then be settled at the door of court.
Federated Farmers have been involved in a case where a permitted fire escaped over or around a firebreak and onto neighbouring property. Regional Council took a prosecution for burning without consent, on the basis that the farmer did not have a consent to burn the neighbouring property. The insurance company then took the view that because the farmer did not have a consent, they would not pay out on the public liability.
This is a ridiculous situation because generally one only requires fire suppression and public liability insurance when the fire exceeds its permit area. What is the point in having insurance cover if it lapses as soon as the fire exceeds the permit area? Landowners must scrutinize their insurance policy very carefully to ensure that there is actually the cover they need.
Acceptance of liability
The RMA provides that mitigating the effects of an adverse event can be used as a defence against prosecution or to lessen penalty. However, as soon as one admits liability then fire suppression costs will probably be imposed.
In the case quoted above both the lawyer representing the farmer and the insurance company advised the farmer not to admit any liability. However the Regional Council insist that one of the reasons for taking the prosecution was that the farmer had not taken measures to mitigate losses to neighbours.
Some lawyers say that one can offer to mitigate effects without admitting any liability. However, this distinction is difficult to comprehend for most practical kiwis.
While levy issues may not be of direct relevance to you as fire suppression managers, they are a source of considerable dissatisfaction to landowners and as such mean landowners are more likely to criticize fire suppression operations.
Urban New Zealanders pay 7.3c/$100 value on insured buildings up to a maximum of $73. Those who don't insure, or insure offshore pay no levy. Those who insure a group of buildings on the basis on first loss, pay limited levy. All these urban people receive full cover for structural or vegetation fires and emergency response, irrespective of whether they have paid a levy.
Rural people pay a levy on insured buildings (house and other) plus machinery. However, if they live more than 12-15 minutes from a fire station the appliance is usually too late to provide effective cover; and for those who live closer the benefits increase proportionately. I believe those who live further from a fire station should pay a reduced levy, or alternatively the levy be rebated if the owner provides their own fire suppression initiatives. Rural vegetation fires are covered by the Rural Fire Fighting Fund, which is largely funded from the levy. However if the landowner is deemed to be responsible for (or own) the fire, the cost will be recovered directly. Therefore, in effect farmers pay a levy to cover costs of fires started by others and private insurance to cover cost of fires started by themselves.
In our own situation, we paid $341 last year in fire service levy. As we live 30 minutes from the nearest fire station we receive virtually no effective cover for structural fires. I believe the only benefits we would receive would be emergency response to a motor accident near an urban area and perhaps control of sideways spread of a vegetation fire started by someone else.
Another of our members farms a 920ha hill country running 7000 stock units. His fire service levy is $1036.97 for the current year and as well he is required to pay a rural fire rate of $229.33 to his district council. Two years ago his header set fire to a paddock of barley and the 111 service was activated. His staff managed to extinguish the fire using an on-site water tanker. However 3 appliances attended and he was required to pay for the call out. What service did he get for his levy payment and district council rate.
Fire has played a major role in the evolution of the vegetative cover of New Zealand and continues to be a commonly used and legitimate management tool. However, administration of fire management and suppression has become very complex and confusing for landowners and many fire managers. There is a major need to simplify and streamline the procedures to reduce administration costs and make the system less complex and more transparent.
Federated Farmers have argued for more transparency in fire suppression management so that we all learn from mistakes and landowners can be confident that best management practises are cost effective.
Cost recovery of increasing sums of money is causing concern to landowners. Landowners need to scrutinize carefully their degree of fire risk and insurance cover. If a fire does escape, landowners need good advice to lessen the risks of litigation and advice on possible mitigation issues.
Inequitable imposition of the Fire Service Commission levy needs to be rectified.
I acknowledge and thank the following for their comments and suggestions: Sally Millar, Kevin Geddes, Ali Undorf-Lay, and Lewis Metcalfe. I also thank Murray Dudfield for clarifying some details.