International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE (Open Access)

You own the fuel, but who owns the fire?

Michael Eburn A C and Geoffrey J. Cary B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University, Acton, ACT 2601, Australia.

B Fenner School of Environment and Society, 48 Linneaus Way, The Australian National University, Acton, ACT 2601, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email: michael.eburn@anu.edu.au

International Journal of Wildland Fire 26(12) 999-1008 https://doi.org/10.1071/WF17070
Submitted: 20 April 2017  Accepted: 26 September 2017   Published: 29 November 2017

Journal Compilation © CSIRO 2017 Open Access CC BY-NC-ND

Abstract

In this paper, we argue that the statement ‘Whoever owns the fuel owns the fire’ implies a duty on landowners to manage fuel on their land to reduce the likelihood of bushfires, however started, from spreading to neighbouring properties. However, the notion ‘Whoever owns the fuel owns the fire’ has not been analysed from a legal perspective. This paper reviews Australian law to identify who is legally responsible for fire that starts on privately owned land. We argue that the correct interpretation of existing Australian law is: ‘Whoever owns the ignition owns the fire’ – that is, liability to pay for losses caused by bushfire has always fallen on those that intentionally start a fire, not on the owner of the fuel that sustains the fire. That legal conclusion could have dramatic implications for fire management policies. It will be shown that liability for starting a prescribed burn is clear-cut whereas liability for allowing accumulated fuel loads to contribute to the spread of fire is almost unheard of. As a result, we argue that the law is pushing landowners in a direction away from the policy direction adopted by all Australian governments. After identifying the current legal position, we recommend changes to align the law with the national policy direction.

Additional keywords: duty of care, law, liability, negligence.


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