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Fire and Emergency says powerless over long grass hazard

March 12, 2024 March 2024 No Comments

By Ray Lilley 

Long grass is a key feature in incidental fires which have sparked across the dry, dusty, drought-hit Wairarapa since before Christmas.

Despite repeated warnings late last year, and a current fire ban, some locals warn that uncut long grass poses a huge fire danger – and the fire service is apparently powerless to take action against landowners with such grass. 

Why? No proof of an “ignition source,” a key requirement for the brigade to legally step forward.

With tinder dry conditions continuing across the region, there are reports of rural locals deeply concerned about uncut long grass.

One farmer, who did not want to be named, reported that despite several neighbours trying for over a decade to get a neighbour to cut their long grass, it remains a full one metre high, including on boundaries and around buildings. 

This is no small back lawn _ but a 5-hectare plus (12-odd acre) field. It has boundaries with four other properties _ thus a total five properties are involved.

Several neighbours have talked to the property owners as recently as December, but met with a flat refusal of action.

The farmer approached Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) Wairarapa but was told they could not force the miscreant neighbour to cut the grass under current legislation unless a fire ignition source was identified. 

It is understood there has only been one prosecution for long grass as a fire accelerant in New Zealand.

“Clearly, this is an unsatisfactory and dangerous situation,” said the farmer who made several contacts with FENZ. 

FENZ’s repeated response: it is powerless to act, apart from providing advice. 

But, more than that, “legalities” somehow prevented the FENZ official from assessing the issue on the spot.

The farmer had filled out a FENZ “Report a Potential Fire Hazard” form on its web site, but after a phone discussion the FENZ officer did not visit due to a “shared driveway” _ apparently a legal risk for FENZ which was not further explained.

FENZ would have been unable to assess the offending property from the road, so the fire hazard has not been officially assessed by the agency empowered to carry out such work.

As for genuine fire hazards, long, unkempt grass is defined as an accelerant. 

“Long and rank grass uncut for a decade is not just untidy, it’s a fire hazard,” the farmer said.

“Without prevention and enforcement, as is the case with smoke alarms, there is serious and persisting risk to life, property and livelihoods from an imminent fire hazard in rural and some urban areas,” the farmer added.

FENZ Martinborough’s fire chief Jake Hawkins noted that “like grass in a rural area, unless there’s an actual ignition source it’s not going to catch fire. 

“It’s just like a forest of trees. There’s huge fire potential there but unless we’re introducing one (ignition source) it’s not actually going to catch fire. Yet it (advice) says cut all trees down near your house,” he added.

“Under the current law there has to be an ignition source,” as in a recent Carterton fire which nearly burnt “three or four houses down. It only happened because a contractor came in to mow long grass and hit a (steel) rim in the long grass.”

His advice? Before the heat of summer “keep things a bit better kempt.”

Grass is fire matter which can burn, but not without an ignition source.    

“That’s the reasoning but if you have a lifestyle property and you have neighbouring properties (nearby) you have a duty of care to maintain your grass no longer than so-and-so,” he said. “If there is an ignition source, we have the power to remove that source.”

It had been a busy Wairarapa summer so far for fire-fighters, and it would be nice for people to have some (fire-fighting) resources on hand, like extra water. “A well-maintained property reduces the risk of fire getting into buildings and sheds.”

The local farmer also pointed out that not all farmers and lifestyle block owners carry indemnity insurance to cover fire and other dangers.

“If our and other properties were destroyed by fire, the consequences would be catastrophic, possibly involving years of expensive litigation as well as lost production, dwellings, sheds, equipment, and so on. With climate change making a bad situation worse, action is overdue,” he added.

The FENZ advisory on rural hazards notes:

“Grass fires can burn a house down by burning through uninterrupted fuel (like tall dry grass) right up to the house. 

“Your home and everything up to 30 meters surrounding it will determine if a fire can burn your house down.

“Remove all trees, long grass, shrubs and logs branches, twigs and needles within 10 meters of your house, as they are fuel for fire

“Please talk to the property owner first to resolve the issue if possible. If this is unsuccessful, let us know by completing the fire hazard form.”

“Note: We (FENZ) can only take action to deal with genuine fire hazards, and not untidy properties.” 

Is there a legal loophole which prevents FENZ carrying out its main function as set out in the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act 2017: “to provide fire prevention, response, and suppression services?” 

All of Wairarapa moved to a prohibited fire season on January 23. Fire and Emergency New Zealand national wildfire manager Tim Mitchell said mid-February that  New Zealand had already had “2,698 wildfires impacting 4,120 hectares so far this season.” He encouraged anyone considering lighting a fire, even a portable gas cooker, to check the current fire status online:  https://www.checkitsalright.nz/


Caption: Ten years and still uncut – right to the boundary.

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