Here's a burning question.  AJ lives on a small block, a short distance from Hamilton.  She's been approached by a community group that wants to hold a bonfire on her property to raise funds.  It's all for a good cause and she'd like to help them but in this modern age is a bit worried about things like liability and OSH and other scary stuff.   What's the situation, she asks.

The bottom line is that liability rests with the person who lights the fire.  The person with the match is responsible for any costs involved with putting it out, says a fire safety officer from Waikato District Council.

These can be fairly frightening - it's around $800 for a single fire truck to come out.  And she wouldn't want to know the cost of bringing in a helicopter to put out a raging fire.  (But okay, for the record it can go into the tens of thousands of dollars.)

But this is the absolute, worst-case scenario, and all of the people I talked with agreed that if it's done correctly, a good time can be had by all.

The first step is talking with someone from the local council about their rules and regulations - each council has its own guidelines.  All of them would probably require that a permit is obtained for each fire; these are free from the Waikato District Council.  And plan ahead - they can take five working days to process.

The guy from WDC said each application is considered on a case-by-case basis and an officer might even go out to visit the site and talk things over with the landowner. 

The most important thing is to show you can put the fire out if it gets out of control.

  • Have a good water supply handy
  • A front-end loader or digger that can demolish the fire is useful
  • Nominate people who will agree to supervise the fire until it is out, and give their contact details to the council
  • Before lighting up, check the long-range weather forecast to make sure it won't be too windy

Tell the neighbours what is planned so they can close their windows if smoke might be a problem, and even better, invite them to attend the event.

"Council just wants to know that people are being proactive," he said. "There's not that many [applications] I've declined; we try to find a safe or right way for people to do what they want to do."

Kevin Holmes is a fire safety officer (Waikato) with the NZ Fire Service.  He says there should be a minimum 10-metre safety zone around the fire - "make sure there's no dry or dead undergrowth around where the fire will be burning."

And you don't want people getting too close to the bonfire, so putting up barrier tape to create a safety zone - a minimum of 10 metres - is a good idea.

The service's control room in Auckland (09 486 7949) needs to be notified - preferably with a contact name, phone number and address.  The time the fire is to be lit, and the time it is expected to burn for are also useful.  This is so that the service knows it's a controlled burn and doesn't get called out unnecessarily by a well-meaning passing motorist.  Or neighbour.

"That's a good thing for anyone to do, especially rural dwellers who are maybe having a fire, burning off tree stumps, which is perfectly okay, if you have your permit."

And at the end of the evening, when the fire is dying down and the event is over, it needs to be secure.  "You need to make sure there's no risk of it spreading through the night, so put it out to be safe, don't leave it unattended."

I also made a quick call to Eric Janse van Rensburg, external communications officer with the Department of Labour, to see what would happen if something went badly wrong and someone was injured.  From what I told him, he doubts Health and Safety would be involved.

"We might initially look into it, to determine if it's a workplace, otherwise it is a police matter."

Andrew McAlley, Hamilton communication manager with the NZ Police says the police investigate suspicious fires.  But it would be a good idea for the organisers to let their local police station know the event was occurring.

So - there's plenty of good advice out there, talk with the experts, get a permit and know what the regulations are. It's nice to know in this country we can still go ahead and have a cracker of an event.