In the last several years there have been a number of increasingly damaging fires around New Zealand. Prolonged dry conditions, combined with excess vegetation growth that has not been checked, that is often quite flammable in nature can prove the perfect recipe for fires. The are a range of potential triggers ranging from sparks from trains going down railway tracks, farm machinery contacting stones whilst ploughing paddocks, burn offs gone wrong, not to mention human error or arson.
The Port Hills fire event of 2017 is the most destructive thus far in terms of property and lives lost with one person killed and 11 houses lost.
Following that event there was an inquiry into the fires and what could be learnt so as to prevent a repeat. Two years later with a much larger fire now threatening Wakefield, with a population of 2,500 near Nelson, three days after it started on a paddock in Pigeon Valley, how much have New Zealanders learnt and what has been done?
I asked this question a year ago in an earlier article. It found some basic problems with who was in charge when the fires started as they traversed numerous political boundaries. Depending on whose boundary it is in the nature of the likely response will change as different authorities will have different processes. There were also concerns with basic information flow between authorities and civilians, which meant some testy exchanges between the two parties.
Could a changing climate also have something to do with the potential danger posed by such fires? Whilst last year was very hot during summer, it was tempered by big and quite sudden swings to stormy weather with considerable rain in tow that kept the risk of drought and the subsequent risk of fire in check. In 2013 and 2017 when there were fire outbreaks that caused property loss, the damaging fires were caused by prolonged, intense dry warm weather with high sunshine hours. Coming out of a very wet 2018, few in November would have imagined that by the end of January parts of New Zealand would be a tinderbox, but that is what happened.
Questions around planning laws around what kind of vegetation should be permitted to grow were also raised. Around the Nelson and Tasman areas there is a range of temperate trees such as pinus radiata and eucalyptus, both of which have high natural oil content. At the time I mentioned that research into the suitability of different vegetation types had been conducted. For such vegetation to have a positive effect it needs to be planted on a large scale and not limited to a few homes. It might also be worthwhile having vegetation breaks where there are either no trees or vegetation or the vegetation is a belt of fire resistant species that are low in volatility when lit.
But the biggest concern was – and probably still is – how much planning pre-event has been done by regional, district or city councils to understand how this phenomena starts. Understanding it is but one aspect of the 4 R’s: Reduction, Readiness, Response, Recovery.
Putting that understanding to good effect by taking steps to mitigate the potential hazard is REDUCTION. Making sure emergency services and the authorities can be ready to move at short notice and encourage the public to have emergency survival plans and the necessary resources – food, water, medicine, clothes, transistor radio, torch with batteries and so forth – is READINESS. The execution of the plans and being able to adapt to circumstances on the day will determine the RESPONSE. Putting lives and communities back together and creating something approach as normal as possible is RECOVERY.