Technical problems have hampered attempts to comply with new fire regulations, the Department of Conservation reveals.

As previously reported, over the next nine months the department is installing hundreds of heat detectors and smoke alarms in backcountry huts so it can comply with Fire and Emergency regulations.

‘Financial bottomless pit’: Smoke alarms for hundreds of DoC huts
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The regulations came into force in 2018, so why is this only happening now?

Claire Spencer, the department’s director of national programmes, says previous attempts to comply by installing smoke detectors in “a number of” huts were unsuccessful because of technical problems – such as false activations in smoky huts, and the short battery life of devices.

“Recent technology developments with fire detection devices now provides fewer false activations and greater occupant safety,” Spencer says.

In Newsroom’s previous story, Federated Mountain Clubs president Megan Dimozantos said the decision to install smoke alarms in backcountry huts with six or more bunks defied common sense. She called it safety overreach, and worried the cost would mean other important work was put on the backburner.

A comment on the NZ Mountain Conservation News Facebook page said installing the smoke alarms in backcountry huts was “crazy”. Another said smoke alarms should be coloured greywacke grey “so they don’t look out of place in the river”.

Spencer says new devices have lithium batteries guaranteed for at least 10 years, if installed and maintained correctly, and they’re sealed – so difficult to tamper with.

To comply with the regulations, the department needs to implement a fire evacuation scheme for buildings that sleep at least six people. Each Conservation region needs its own scheme and huts must have fire detection devices installed.

“A fire evacuation scheme requires assigning a trained staff member in each region to undertake training and check that all aspects of the fire evacuation scheme are met,” Spencer says.

Hamilton Hut, in the Arthur’s Pass area, has 20 bunks and multiple rooms. Photo: David Williams

Rooms with fireplaces – a potential source of smoke – need a heat detector. Rooms without a heating source, like a bunk room, will need a smoke detector. Huts with multiple rooms will need more than one device.

Heat detectors and smoke alarms cost up to $100 each and the Department of Conservation estimates the total cost, excluding staff time, for installation and maintenance to be $60,000 to $95,000.

“Wherever possible, the installation of fire detection devices will be completed as part of business-as-usual maintenance work,” Spencer says.

Installing and maintaining devices will be the responsibility of Conservation rangers. The devices will be checked and recorded during standard hut inspections.

DoC says it has 948 visitor huts in the backcountry. (The technical definition is “fully enclosed buildings to provide overnight sleeping accommodation for users of the backcountry”.)

Of those, 587 can sleep more than six people. There are also 300 huts not promoted to visitors – for staff accommodation and wardens’ quarters – to check, for a total of 887 buildings.

“Over time, the Department of Conservation will also need to assess other buildings relevant to the regulations including staff housing, lodges, cabins and private huts on public conservation land.”

Hut upgrades to meet fire regulations come as the department is under immense financial pressure.

Unsustainable cost pressures have arrived at the same time as the department struggles to cope with a massive backlog of maintenance on an ageing network of huts, tracks and structures.

Given high inflation, the department’s maintenance dollars won’t go as far as they used to, at a time when climate-change-fuelled weather events are causing immense damage to the country’s visitor assets.

And things may get worse.

Before the election, the National Party identified the department as one of many government agencies that enjoyed a huge uplift in budget over the previous six years.

Therefore it was earmarked for an “efficiency dividend” – or budget cut, depending on your point of view. National’s expectation was for an average saving of 6.5 percent, per agency.

This for a department charged with managing a third of the country, and protecting our taonga species of flora and fauna, on an annual budget lower than that of the Christchurch City Council.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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