A reasonable landowner is not obliged to ensure that in all circumstances any fire on its property will not spread beyond its boundaries.

The landowner is obliged to take steps that are reasonable in the circumstances to guard against such an event occurring. If the landowner takes those steps and a fire spreads nevertheless, the landowner cannot be held liable for negligence just because further steps could have been taken.

The parties were neighbours on farming land. A fire spread from the appellant’s land to the respondent’s land allegedly because of the appellant’s land being heavily infested with invasive plant species such as black wattle and acacia, referred to locally as ‘warbos’.

The neighbour alleged that the warbos should have been cleared from the land because of the fact that it is a fire hazard.

The evidence was that the fire got out of control because of a strong wind that got up. This was despite the fact that a number of fire engines and firefighters were present at the time by arrangement with the appellant.

Although it was far more likely for a fire in the warbos to spread than a fire in the natural fynbos on the farm, the true issue is whether reasonable steps were taken to guard against the fire spreading. The fact the firefighting services were available and were onsite was held to be reasonable.

Although the removal of the warbos would have been a further step to prevent any fire that might start from spreading, that does not mean that the failure to remove it is regarded as unreasonable in the circumstances and negligent and the neighbour’s claim was dismissed.

The case is MTO Forestry v Swart.