I note with some satisfaction the recent demise of a statutory provision which caused much grief to an unlucky few in the rural community. I refer to a section of the Forest and Rural Fires Act which made anyone who caused a rural or forest fire liable for any damage caused by the fire as well as the cost of putting out that fire, regardless of whether they had been negligent. So long as the root cause of the fire could be traced back to you, you could have been liable even if you had done everything right to contain the fire source, or thought you had completely extinguished the fire. The Fire Service’s costs for putting out rural fires can be huge, and could exceed the amount of any material loss. If helicopters with monsoon buckets were involved, costs mount very rapidly. Over the years, individuals caught out by this included farmers whose burn-offs had got out of control and hunters whose campfires got away on them. Unexpected wind changes can cause havoc. Often the cause was embers coming back to life under favourable weather conditions when people quite reasonably thought they had long ago gone out.
Previously, if you had the right insurance in place then you were okay, but that ‘right insurance’ was very specific and required that you had cover for liability under the Forest and Rural Fires Act for the type of activity you were carrying out when the fire started. Insurance cover was a bit of a lottery. Some small block owners, for example, did not have the right cover for all the commercial activities carried out on their land.
And of course, the financial consequences of not having cover could be catastrophic. This provision always seemed unfair to me because in other accident or emergency situations you are not expected to pay the full costs of the emergency response, even if you caused the accident.
The good news is the strict liability provision has been swept away with the repeal of the Forest and Rural Fires Act by the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act 2017. The Rural Fire Service is now funded by levies. A new criminal regime has been put in place whereby anyone who behaves intentionally or recklessly with regard to fire can face large fines. I think we can all agree that this is reasonable.
While the ‘no fault’ statutory liability has gone, other potential legal liability does remain. If it can be shown that a person has allowed a fire to escape as a result of negligence then they may find themselves sued by any property owners who suffered damage as a result.