The Otago Rural Fire Authority has had its costs covered, but the Otago man who was blamed for a 72ha fire near Kurow this summer has yet to learn whether he will be forced to pay the more than $60,000 invoice he received in March for fire suppression costs.

Tom Dodds, 22-years-old, a self-employed painter-decorator from Dunedin, maintained yesterday he did not start the fire and said he was still in a state of "disbelief'' about the situation.

"I can't believe they are still going with it,'' he said.

He was not happy with the "ridiculously long time'' the process was taking.

Advertisement

Mr Dodds received an invoice for $60,194.66 on March 22 from the Otago Rural Fire Authority for the cost of putting out the vegetation fire he is alleged to have started on a rabbit-hunting trip on January 10.

He has disputed it from the beginning.

"If they had the evidence they would have taken me to court straight away. The fact is they've got no evidence, they can't pin something on me that I didn't do. They're struggling. They're scraping the barrel,'' he said yesterday.

National Rural Fire Authority national manager rural operations Gary Lockyer, of Wellington, said he had explained the process to Mr Dodds.

He said the fire authority had assessed the regional authority's claim and determined it was a "fair and reasonable cost'' and had covered the Otago fire costs. The national Rural Fire Fighting Fund averaged about 95 claims a year, but this season had been busy and more than 120 claims had been made.

A "litigation review'' of Mr Dodds' case would begin in the next couple of weeks where the authority would answer the question: "Is this something that we should be taking further, or not?''

A helicopter helps a firefighter douse the Waitaki River island fire in January. Photo / Supplied
A helicopter helps a firefighter douse the Waitaki River island fire in January. Photo / Supplied

If the case was determined to be "legally technical enough'' it would then go to a legal review.

Mr Lockyer said he expected a legal opinion would be required in this case.
"It's going to take a little bit longer, unfortunately. That's just the way it is,'' he said.

Mr Dodds was rabbit-shooting in the Waitaki Valley with friends on a hot summer weekend. While at camp in the early afternoon, he saw a fire in the gorse up to 150m away.

Realising it was growing quickly and he would be unable to control the fire, Mr Dodds called 111.

Two helicopters and three rural fire crews fought the 25ha fire until dark on the day. But gale-force westerlies overnight spread the blaze quickly.

When crews returned, flames were reported as being higher than the largest trees on the island.

Ten firefighters and one helicopter remained at the scene on the Sunday and by 4pm they had contained the fire to 72ha.

Otago Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Dr Stephanie Rotarangi said in March she could not discuss the details of the fire investigation "as that might prejudice a later result''.

She repeated again yesterday that she could make no comment on the fire authority's investigation.

But she did confirm that the money had been refunded for the cost of the fire suppression.

In March she said, "From the Otago Rural Fire Authority point of view, all I can say is the process was robust and best practice.''

When Mr Dodds' situation gained publicity in March many people questioned a system which would cause a man who reported a fire to be left holding the bill to pay for it.

A petition was started on change.org "Clear Tom Dodds of fire charges'' that received 480 supporters.

Mr Dodds said when he spoke to Mr Lockyer, he had told him then, "I've got no money, you're [having a go at] getting blood out of a stone'.'

"I said to him, 'You go and find everyone who left there and get written statements off them and I will see you in court. Otherwise don't bother.

"I'll make them look like bigger idiots than they do now.''