Fire rules breach to burn hole in wallets

By Peter de Graaf

Bills totalling thousands of dollars have been sent out to Northlanders breaching the fire ban as authorities try to change attitudes by hitting offenders in their back pockets.

Northern principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said he was "taking no prisoners" this year, with fire restrictions in place across the whole region because of the tinder dry conditions. Fire restrictions are in place across the whole of Northland as a result.

A suspicious fire burned more than 200 hectares of scrub, bush and forestry south of Dargaville earlier this week. Helicopter costs alone from fighting that fire are expected to be about $86,000 a day.

"People's attitudes need to change and we're going to do it by hitting them in the wallet. I just don't see why other ratepayers should carry the costs of people acting irresponsibly," said Mr Taylor.

"The situation we had at Karikari, where two lives and a number of structures were lost, is going to happen again unless Northlanders wake up and change their attitudes to fire."

Department of Conservation ranger William Macrae and helicopter pilot John "Prickles" de Ridder died when their helicopter crashed into Karikari Bay during a search and rescue mission on the night of November 30, 2011, during a major suspicious fire.

Mr Taylor's warning comes as the likely cost of this week's suspicious fire on Kaipara's Pouto Peninsula climbs into six figures. He said the four helicopters alone would cost $86,000 a day, assuming they were flying only eight hours a day. The real cost did not include paying firefighters on the ground, lost trees and the loss of future employment. The blaze had also wiped out plenty of indigenous flora and fauna.

The fire authority was hitting back by invoicing anyone whose unpermitted fire had to be put out, and working with police to identify and prosecute arsonists.

This week, a landowner at Kerikeri's Kapiro Rd was billed $1600, the cost of extinguishing a January 6 fire; last week two Wainui Bay residents were invoiced $500 and $700 for illegal fires on December 10. A Te Tii woman who lit a pile of grass clippings on Monday, starting a fire that threatened a nearby house, will also be billed.

The cost of fighting rural fires is initially paid by district councils, in other words ratepayers.

Most is refunded by the National Rural Fire Authority, which is funded by taxpayers and insurance levies.

"People need to understand the cost of fighting fires comes straight out of their pockets. It's just so infuriating," said Mr Taylor.

Meanwhile, police want to hear from anyone who may have seen vehicle or people movement in the area before or during the Pouto fire, which started about 8.30am on Tuesday near Kellys Bay, about 50km southwest of Dargaville. Ring Dargaville police on 09 4393400 or anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

- Northern Advocate

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