GDC liable for mill fire

A helicopter about to drop a load of water on the Double J Smallwoods fire. File picture

GISBORNE District Council has been ordered to pay more than $875,000 in damages after a High Court judge ruled it was negligent in allowing pampas grass to grow unchecked before it became the site of a major scrub fire that spread to a Gisborne sawmill.

Following a civil action brought against GDC by Double J Smallwoods Ltd owners Jon and Margaret Gardner, GDC has been found negligent and ordered to pay $875,254.64 in damages.

The council has appealed the High Court decision.

The fire on council land spread to the Smallwoods sawmilling property on Awapuni Road in January 2010.

In a reserved decision, Justice Susan Thomas ruled that while GDC had been negligent in not dealing with a known fire risk on council land, the plaintiffs also had some responsibly for some of their financial losses stemming from the fire.

The fire started in pampas grass on the boundary of the Double J Smallwoods timber yard in Awapuni Road and a railway corridor, then spread to the yard and caused damage to two buildings and subsequent “extensive” financial losses.

Although the council argued that it did not own the land where the fire was started, it was noted that the New Zealand Fire Service had attended about 10 events in the area over the previous six years, and that the plaintiffs had previously complained to the council about the fires — attempting to get the council to take action to reduce the risk caused by the pampas.

Report recognises risk

A GDC report had previously recognised the fire risk but contained an incorrect assumption that the grass was on land owned by KiwiRail.

Justice Thomas said “on the balance of probabilities” she was satisfied that while the fire was deliberately lit, if the grass had been cleared, maintained or mowed, the fire would have spread more slowly and would not have crossed the creek.

The Smallwoods air shed was ignited by embers landing on material that provided fuel for the fire.

The council was also aware of the possibility of illegal fires being lit.

“The council was not only aware of the fire hazard the pampas/toetoe posed, but was sufficiently concerned to require those responsible for the railway corridor to clear the vegetation.”

The judge said she was satisfied the council breached its duty by failing to take reasonable steps to “prevent or minimise the known risk” of damage or injury to the property by fire.

If the pampas had been removed, the plaintiff’s losses would “more likely than not” have been avoided.

However, she also concluded that Smallwoods did not adopt reasonable risk management practice on the property, given that there was a known fire risk from the pampas.

Vegetation and the presence of combustible material on the property played a material part in the spread of the fire and ignition of the two buildings.

The awarded damages were less than half of $2.4 million sought by the plaintiffs.

Mr Gardner said he would not comment on the ruling because GDC was appealing it.

GISBORNE District Council has been ordered to pay more than $875,000 in damages after a High Court judge ruled it was negligent in allowing pampas grass to grow unchecked before it became the site of a major scrub fire that spread to a Gisborne sawmill.

Following a civil action brought against GDC by Double J Smallwoods Ltd owners Jon and Margaret Gardner, GDC has been found negligent and ordered to pay $875,254.64 in damages.

The council has appealed the High Court decision.

The fire on council land spread to the Smallwoods sawmilling property on Awapuni Road in January 2010.

In a reserved decision, Justice Susan Thomas ruled that while GDC had been negligent in not dealing with a known fire risk on council land, the plaintiffs also had some responsibly for some of their financial losses stemming from the fire.

The fire started in pampas grass on the boundary of the Double J Smallwoods timber yard in Awapuni Road and a railway corridor, then spread to the yard and caused damage to two buildings and subsequent “extensive” financial losses.

Although the council argued that it did not own the land where the fire was started, it was noted that the New Zealand Fire Service had attended about 10 events in the area over the previous six years, and that the plaintiffs had previously complained to the council about the fires — attempting to get the council to take action to reduce the risk caused by the pampas.

Report recognises risk

A GDC report had previously recognised the fire risk but contained an incorrect assumption that the grass was on land owned by KiwiRail.

Justice Thomas said “on the balance of probabilities” she was satisfied that while the fire was deliberately lit, if the grass had been cleared, maintained or mowed, the fire would have spread more slowly and would not have crossed the creek.

The Smallwoods air shed was ignited by embers landing on material that provided fuel for the fire.

The council was also aware of the possibility of illegal fires being lit.

“The council was not only aware of the fire hazard the pampas/toetoe posed, but was sufficiently concerned to require those responsible for the railway corridor to clear the vegetation.”

The judge said she was satisfied the council breached its duty by failing to take reasonable steps to “prevent or minimise the known risk” of damage or injury to the property by fire.

If the pampas had been removed, the plaintiff’s losses would “more likely than not” have been avoided.

However, she also concluded that Smallwoods did not adopt reasonable risk management practice on the property, given that there was a known fire risk from the pampas.

Vegetation and the presence of combustible material on the property played a material part in the spread of the fire and ignition of the two buildings.

The awarded damages were less than half of $2.4 million sought by the plaintiffs.

Mr Gardner said he would not comment on the ruling because GDC was appealing it.

GDC chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann confirmed the decision would be appealed.

“We would like to acknowledge the impact that this fire has had on business owners Double J Smallwoods Limited.

“An appeal against this decision has been filed and while the process is under way, the council is not able to comment on ongoing litigation.”​

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