Date: 09 May 2012
Last spring, four farmers lit burn-off fires on properties in the Wanaka area which escaped into adjoining public conservation land causing severe damage and creating ongoing responsibilities for landowners, plus a very real threat of prosecution.
“The department takes the burning of public conservation land very seriously, and each of these fires and the particular circumstances surrounding them have been examined very carefully with regard to the possibility of prosecution” says DOC Otago Conservator, Marian van der Goes.
“We are seeking all the costs of suppressing the fires from the respective landowners and we have agreed on a mitigation package at the landowners expense where relevant. We are also introducing some even stricter initiatives for new permits issued by the department. Taking all matters into account we have decided not to prosecute, this time.”
DOC believes the mitigation approach is constructive. It will assist natural heritage recovery, and reduce the risk of future fire escape. The landowners will face ongoing costs on top of fire suppression will be required to complete a full assessment of the effects of the fire; erect fencing that keeps public conservation land separate and free of livestock; regular weed and pest control to maximise re-generation and ongoing monitoring of the fire damaged area’s recovery.
Despite these efforts, DOC’s Wanaka Area Manager, Paul Hellebrekers says that “It will take at least 20 years of plant succession before some of these recently burnt areas will return to their pre-fire state. That’s why they need additional protection, and in the long term the best way to do this is by working with landowners.”
Having four fires escape, plus an unauthorised burn-off near Alexander, in the one season has lead to the development of more stringent restrictions and procedures that will protect the environment, both on and off public conservation land. This means that all permit applications have to be lodged six weeks before any burn-off; all proposed areas will be inspected by DOC, and a DOC officer will attend and monitor burns that are considered a high risk to public conservation lands. In addition a helicopter must be on hand when the fire is lit and in many cases a second helicopter will be required to light the fire.
The Wanaka farmers who use fire as a management tool have formed the Upper Clutha Vegetation Control Group to ensure best practice is used for burning and to look at alternative methods of control. Allan Kane, chairman of the group, says, “These changes to the permit process will complement the objectives of the group to minimise burning and make it safer.”
Paul Hellebrekers will represent DOC on the farmer-led control group. “I’m really pleased that the farmers have done this on their own accord, making it a positive outcome from what has been a very difficult time.”