Fire and Emergency NZ fails to shed light on dangers of fires on conservation land

By Eric Frykberg of RNZ

The people who run New Zealand's main fire fighting organisation do not appear to have looked into the dangers of fire on Department of Conservation (DoC) land spreading to neighbouring properties.

That is suggested by Fire and Emergency New Zealand's response to a request under the Official Information Act by RNZ.

Farmers repeatedly complained that thick undergrowth on DoC land put their own neighbouring properties at risk after a devastating blaze at Lake Ōhau in early October destroyed 48 buildings and burnt more than 5000 hectares of land.

There were fears that similar fires could happen elsewhere in Canterbury and Otago, focused on dry country in the eastern South Island, not the humid rain forests of the West Coast.

Criticism was spurred by Federated Farmers, and supported by a retired rural fire chief with 24 years in the job, Murray Dudfield.

Dudfield argued DoC land next to private properties had become a fire risk, with 2m high vegetation available to provide fuel in the event of a blaze.

"It's not a case of if, it's a case of when, those lands burn," Dudfield said.

Their worries were rejected by conservationists, and by then Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage.

They argued letting ecosystems grow back to their natural state was an important environmental goal.

University of Canterbury plant ecologist David Kelly said stopping grazing was an essential part of long-term management of public lands, which could end up covered with either native shrubs or native forest, which were much less flammable.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand was then asked for its view on this debate in a request under the Official Information Act.

The organisation was asked by RNZ for any briefing papers written on this problem for either the chief executive or the board of directors.

In a response, Fire and Emergency said no papers of that kind had been provided to either entity in the last two years.

"As such, it is necessary to decline your request under section 18(e) of the Official Information Act," Fire and Emergency said.

"That is because the document alleged to contain the information requested does not exist or, despite reasonable efforts to locate it, cannot be found."

Fire and Emergency went on to say that risk of fire from vegetation on land was dealt with at a local level in the first instance, but it gave no further information on what would happen next.