Light fires at your peril

Some Northlanders should have had a nasty surprise in the mail over recent days; for others the shock is still to come, but arrive it will, as the first bills for illegal and out-of-control fires are dispatched.

The Northern Rural Fire Authority is taking a hard line against fire-starters after last summer's fires claimed two lives and cost $2 million to put out.

A restricted fire season came into force across the Far North at noon on Monday last week, meaning that a permit is required for every outdoor fire except barbecues, braziers and hangi fires. In the most fire-prone areas, such as the Karikari and Aupouri peninsulas, restrictions are in force year round.

Northern principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said the first invoice had been sent to a Whirinaki resident whose fire two weeks earlier, before the restriction was imposed, got out of control and had to be doused by firefighters.

Next in line for an unpleasant surprise would be an orchardist whose waste fires sparked a Kerikeri Fire Brigade callout on Monday night last week, just nine hours into the restricted fire season. He did not have a permit.

Mr Taylor said he was allowing a little leeway in the first few days of the restrictions, but his leniency was evaporating as quickly as the fire danger was rising. Fire-starters who claimed ignorance of the rules had their heads "pretty deep in the sand," he said.

Anyone who blatantly disregarded the rules would be invoiced for the cost of putting out the fire. Sending a fire appliance cost about $500, but the expense could escalated rapidly, especially if helicopters had to be called in. Large fires could cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to extinguish.

Mr Taylor said people might be surprised by the powers offered by the Forest and Rural Fires Act, and by how aggressively the rural fire authority would pursue people ignoring the rules.

Arsonists are also in the authority's sights after the Okaihau brigade was called to a deliberately-lit scrub fire at Lake Road at 1pm on Tuesday last week. Signs went up in the area the next day, urging people to be vigilant and pass on any information they had about the arsonist.

Signs also went up at Waima, in the South Hokianga, where Rawene firefighters had to put out a grass fire beside State Highway 12 on Monday night last week, the latest of many over the past month.

"We've been getting a few grass fires out there," Mr Taylor added.

"We're asking people to keep a very focused look on who might be doing it. Depending on the conditions this could be a very dangerous situation."

He wanted people to be able to use fire, but to do it responsibly, and to involve the fire authority.

Fire permit application forms are available from, Juken NZ, Aupouri Forest headquarters, DOC's Kaitaia and Bay of Islands offices, or Far North District Council service centres (phone 0800 920-029 or 401-5200) during office hours. Applicants should allow up to 72 hours for the site of the fire to be inspected.

- Northland Age

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