Australian bush fires raise questions about bush fire safety in New Zealand

As we continue to watch the bush fire crisis in Australia and marvel at the work being done to save the various animals, it is important we check on our own preparedness in New Zealand for bush fires. As climate change takes hold some provinces are going to get drier and become more prone to them, and the Australian bush fires have mos probably shown that if anything, we are not ready.

Whilst arson has contributed some fires to the tally of active events around Australia, they do not account for the biggest or the most damaging. They would not have necessarily gotten established without the help prolonged drought conditions that have afflicted much of the east or the prolonged high temperatures – Australia has been increasingly afflicted by heatwaves that have pushed temperatures frequently into the mid-high 40 degree celsius range.

Once established, bush fires can take on a life of their own. They can create their own weather, which some of the current ones are doing. Pyrocumulus is cumulus cloud created by up drafts from the fires dragging particulate high enough that water vapour starts condensing around it. Pyrocumulonimbus are cumulonimbus clouds that are created by the same phenomena, and like any cumulonimbus they can create lightning. This is happening right now. The pyronado is a tornadic feature spawned by a localised rapidly rotating up drafts caused by the fires. Short lived and unpredictable they can move rapidly.

Bush fires do not affect just their immediate area. Fanned by strong winds the real front is actually not the fire/s, but an area several hundred metres in front in of them where burning embers are landing. If you are in that area, it is time to leave, and leave quickly. If you have another plan, that is the time it needs to be actioned.

A number of other man made factors have hindered the Australian response to their bush fire emergency. They include but are not limited to:

  • Specialist planes that can pick up water and dump it on fires were considered by the Australian government and then the idea was scratched
  • The Rural Fire Service went through a period of having an alleged bad culture among its members and management that caused significant numbers of firefighters to walk away
  • Some brigades are using heavily out dated equipment, including trucks that are not up to the modern requirements of firefighting
  • Federal Government has been slow to acknowledge the need for monetary compensation for firefighters who gave up their regular jobs to help with the fire fighting

The bush fires in Australia invariably raise questions about protecting New Zealanders from scrub fires, which are a regular occurrence during summer. In provinces like Canterbury, Otago, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough these can start and spread rapidly. In inland areas sometimes only helicopter access is available to those fighting the fires. Whilst we probably do not need water bombing aircraft, helicopters with the capacity to do that would be useful.

City, District and Regional Councils may or may not have factored bush fires into their hazard planning strategies. If not these will now need to be revisited under comparative urgency, lest they experience the problems Christchurch has had following its 2017 Port Hills fire, where a sudden change in wind direction and flammable material meant that fire fighters lost control of a fire they thought was contained. 11 houses were lost.

This also raises questions about the types of vegetation we should be planting. Clearly around urban areas and in hilly terrain where firefighting might be difficult, eucalyptus and other highly flammable vegetation potentially becomes dangerous.

Dear Australia

Dear Australia

We, you and New Zealand, are two old friends much like family. Two countries with over 100 years of knowing each other in ways not many countries get to know their neighbours. Through two world wars, where we stood side by side in the grimmest of conditions – the baking sun of Gallipoli; the hellish muddy quagmire of Ypres; in North Africa in World War 2. Through peace time we have stood side by side – in your bush fires of 2009 and now; in the aftermath of the Christchurch quakes and the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. There aren’t too many times you will see Aussie police get a standing ovation in a New Zealand airport, but you got that when you arrived to help Christchurch. And maybe in the next few days you will get to see N.Z. Defence Force assets and realise we’ve come to help.

These last couple of months have been rather grim for you haven’t they? Months of watching a bushfire monstrosity form before your very eyes in a country well known for being dry, but also covered in highly flammable vegetation has been pretty horrendous to watch.

You have been ruthlessly challenged by the very worst of firestorm behaviour. You have had to watch fires so big that they created their own weather – the updraughts cause by the heat of the fires has been strong enough to create its own weather including pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds. The latter have, as cumulonimbus’ are prone to doing, generated lightning. Some fires have generated firestorm conditions where they generate their own inflow winds that are strong enough to move vehicles about, similar to the firestorms in Tokyo, Dresden and Hamburg created by military bombing in World War 2.

These conditions, combined with the handiwork of a small band of arseholes, has spawned a monster showing no sign of losing its rapacious appetite for destruction.

For myself and my fellow New Zealanders this has been horrible to watch on television, a topic threading itself through all sorts of other conversations among friends and colleagues, family and strangers. Whereas we have seen bush fires in the past in Australia and felt sympathy for the families affected, the sheer scale of what is happening this time, drags in a whole lot of other emotions such as horror (the suffering of people and animals), pain (mental anguish at the devastation to lives), despair (when will this end), frustration.

We have had our moments when we haven’t seen eye to eye – defence, refugees, climate change and treatment of New Zealanders – but all of this pales into relative insignificance when we look at the headlines, day in day out. And when it becomes one of the big stories overseas, even – if only briefly – interrupting Fox News’ non-stop coverage of impeachment proceedings, Iran and the election, you realise it is one of the stories of the year. A sad indictment that Australia’s most horrible peacetime moment since the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 is what it takes to focus media attention.

So, not surprisingly it was almost with relief that I heard New Zealand Minister of Defence Ron Mark announce the deployment of New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force assets in Australia to assist. In that most Aussie and Kiwi way of being brothers and sisters in arms during war, we are also brothers and sisters in peace fighting the very menace that causes our skies to go all sorts of brilliant orange and red.

Look after yourself Australia. These are painful times. And much as I am disappointed with the cricket, it does not even register when I see what my Australian friends are suffering.

Kia Kaha!

A turbulent end to a turbulent year (and decade): the World

At the start of 2010, after a decade of post-11 September turmoil, many around the world might have been hoping for a more settled decade where some of the damage was undone. Ten years later, that hope seems more remote than ever before. We look back at the turbulent decade around the world that was the 2010’s.

2010: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour Party were swept from office by the Conservatives, who with the Nick Clegg led Liberal Democrats formed a centre-right government. In France. Towards the end of the year random sparks in the gun powder barrel of north Africa – the self immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia in late December – would be the catalyst for the 2011 Arab Spring. WikiLeaks releases 250,000 classified documents from American diplomats; its founder Julian Assange goes into exile in Ecuador until 2019. South Africa hosted the 2010 F.I.F.A. World Cup, which was won by Spain.

2011: Festering protests in Tunisia, Libya and other Middle East and African countries boiled over into full scale revolts topping governments in the former countries and rocking regimes in several others. Syria began a bloody down-hill slide into an even bloodier civil war that continues to this day. Whilst their African neighbours revolted on the streets, rebellion against the Euro was building in Europe where Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy found themselves struggling to justify continuance of the Euro, with Greece threatening to go full drachma on everyone. But it might be a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan that triggered a tsunami that killed 15,000 people along the east coast and crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant causing at least one reactor to explode and two more to suffer crippling damage.

2012: Against the backdrop of worsening situation in Syria, the rise of Daesh in the Middle East, the London Olympics – once looked down upon as going to fail – was a true bright spot where several well known athletes were discovered by the world. The Euro currency crisis continued with Greece and France both changing Governments as a result. The cruise liner Costa Concordia sinks off the coast of Italy, with the captain, Franscesco Schettino’s negligence being the primary cause in a sinking that took 32 people to the bottom. Two major massacres in the United States blighted that nation’s year with one happening at a theatre and another at an elementary school.

2013: The year opened with a bang over Chelyabinsk in Russia when a meteorite exploded over the Russian city injuring hundreds and damaging 4,300 buildings. In April the United Nations adopted the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the sale of conventional weapons. In early June, Edward Snowden, a former C.I.A. operative disclosed documents suggesting a massive surveillance programme of media is planned; he flees the country and is granted asylum in Russia. The same month after months of bickering former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd challenges incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a leadership ballot. Mr Rudd wins and Ms Gillard retires from politics; Mr Rudd would be defeated in September at an Australian general election by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.

2014: The year started with an outbreak of Ebola in Africa that would go on to kill over 11,000 people and hospitalize thousands more. It would last until 2016. In March, in defiance of a United Nations referendum on the sovereignty of the Crimea, Russia annexes the critical Ukrainian territory, immediately triggering sanctions and other diplomatic actions against Russia. In a grim year for Malaysian Airlines MH370 and MH17 crash in separate incidents – the latter being linked to a Russian missile battery deployed in Ukraine, which Russia denies. Justice was served in August on two senior Khmer Rouge commanders who are found guilty of committing crimes against humanity in the K.R.’s bloody reign. Germany swept to victory over hosts Brazil in a 7-1 thrashing at the F.I.F.A. World Cup Semi-Final and won the Final against Argentina a week later.

2015: British Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the legislation enabling a referendum on whether Britain should exit the European Union after the Conservatives were returned to office in the election. The Cricket World Cup is hosted by New Zealand and Australia, with the hosts meeting in the Final. Australia won.  In a year pock-marked by terrorism committed by Islamic militants, major events occur in France, Kuwait, Tunisia, Kenya and Afghanistan. German car maker Volkswagen was accused of having rigged diesel emission tests for 11 million vehicles world wide, resulting in a U.S.$2.8 billion fine. In a hope for disarmament Iran and the United Nations Permanent 5 plus Germany reach an agreement to allow an Iranian nuclear programme if it gives up the elements essential for weapons development, which Israel immediately denounces. The Paris COP15 Climate Change summit resulted in all countries committing to reducing carbon emissions for the first time. Donald Trump, to much derision, announces his candidacy on a Republican ticket for President of the United States.

2016: A year of political shocks reverberate around the world. People thought it was a joke when Britain announced a referendum to exit from the European Union. On 23 June 2016, the joke became reality much to the surprise of the international community. On 8 November 2016, an even bigger shock that produced a myriad of humorous headlines such as W(hy) T(rump) F(lourished), when Mr Trump swept to victory in the United States. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics made for an entertaining and useful diversion as the United Kingdom grappled with the fallout from the Brexit vote.

2017: Donald Trump assumes the White House and relations with other countries immediately begin to deteriorate. Theresa May becomes Prime Minister of Britain after David Cameron resigns – unsure of her mandate, she immediately calls an election; a deadly apartment block fire in Grenfell which exposes flammable cladding on a host of buildings shows her compassion to be sadly lacking. North Korea tests Mr Trump’s mettle, rattling off a series of nuclear weapon and missile tests culminating in a 200+ kiloton test in September. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe resigns after being placed under house arrest by the military – he dies in 2019.

2018: Concerns grow about China’s policy of buying out assets in other nations to grow their influence in those countries with Huawei being given government money to develop its 5G technology. Russia successfully hosts the F.I.F.A. World Cup, drawing considerable admiration. France wins the Final, leading to rioting in Paris. Saudi Arabia, a country not known for its human rights finally allows women to drive, but almost immediately detains several of the leading proponents. The Syrian Civil War continues – most of the rebel held areas have been lost, but Russian and Syrian forces continue to attack Idlib and the few remaining strongholds.

2019: In the year of Greta Thunberg, unprecedented student protest action against climate change draws derision from the political right, but announces a new force in global politics: the teenager. A terrorist attack in New Zealand draws international sympathy, and challenges the global tech companies to show leadership in cracking down on the transmission of hate content on their platforms. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sweeps to victory five months after taking over from Mrs May who had resigned after her Brexit plan stalled amid furious opposition in the House of Commons.

Happy New Decade to you all.

Is Christchurch and Canterbury ready to move on from the quakes?

Nearly nine years after that first earthquake came rumbling into the lives of thousands of Cantabrians, questions are being asked about whether Christchurch is ready to finally close the chapter on the Canterbury Earthquakes 2010-11. According to Andrea Vance, a journalist for Stuff, Labour have read the “tea leaves” and believe that Christchurch wants to resume a normal relationship with the Government.

Only when the last person has settled with their insurance company will the job be done – Southern Response, with scores of outstanding insurance claims still to settle is shutting down at the end of 2019, claiming its job is done. Earthquake Commission claims at the end of May 2019 still numbered 2037, which E.Q.C. said was down from 3,529 the previous year whilst acknowledging that there is scope for improvement.

Only when all of the major crown rebuild projects have had their futures finalized  will the job be done Р$3 billion remains to be spent, and numerous projects that had been agreed to are yet to be finished. There is no idea yet when a stadium will be built or what it will look like.  The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on Barbadoes Street which is one of the finest architectural gems in Christchurch is not going to be saved, which has ensured that there will be a protracted court fight as it is a Class 1 Heritage Building.

Currently under construction is Te Pae, the Christchurch Convention Centre. It is going to be owned by the Crown under the global settlement whose details were released a couple of weeks ago. Te Pae is due for completion in the middle of next year.

Christchurch Cathedral is still in limbo, and its uncertainty is one of the primary causes for a relative lack of development around Cathedral Square in the southwest, southern and northeastern corners. The land that the old Warners Hotel and the Bailies Irish Bar and Restaurant on the ground floor used to occupy is still vacant (Bailies moved to Edgeware in 2012). So is the land in the southwest where various gift shops and a theatre used to be.

Only when all of the above are complete or have a definitive future, will Christchurch be able to fully move on from the dark days of 2010-11. Then we can all turn to face head on the events of the future in the knowledge that when a major disaster next hits a New Zealand city authorities will have a rough idea of what to do (and not to do).

The major problems for Christchurch rate payers are not ones that the Crown has agreed to handle. One consequence of reaching the settlement we have with the Crown is that $800 million is going to have to be found for turning the old civilian red zone into something more useful. Similarly $1.2 billion will need to be found for fixing damage under the road network. These two expenditures combined with a need to concentrate on neglected green spaces that have become weedy and overgrown and a host of smaller issues that have been less of a priority because of the earthquakes is expected to cause Christchurch a few more headaches yet.

Christchurch may be nearly ready to end its special post-quake recovery relationship with the Government, but there are internal scars as well as physical ones that will never recover. Move on we will. Forget we will never.


Financial judgement day for Christchurch today

After nearly nine long years since the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that started Christchurch’s seismic odyssey, the city will today have its final financial reckoning. This is the day when Christchurch’s financial future is laid bare for public scrutiny. This is where the final details of the agreement between Christchurch and the Crown over who owns what, who is responsible for what and who still owes what, will become clear.

This is an event that New Zealand should take notice of. When we have big disasters in the future – think Alpine Fault magnitude 8.0+; Auckland Volcanic Field and so forth – and the Crown and the territorial authorities meet to work out a long term recovery plan, this is what the end of that recovery might look like. This is worth noting because it might well be a blue print for how we manage the later stages of the recovery from big disasters in the future.

Has the recovery been perfect, gone totally to plan and involved total co-operation between all agencies from start to finish? Absolutely not. Disputes were had, such as the clash between the Crown and the C.C.C. over the competence of the Christchurch City Council; between the claimants and their insurance companies, some of which are still not resolved nearly nine years later. But with the exception of the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami with the resulting nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, at the same time there probably has not been such a large scale recovery effort in a first world city, since New Orleans was battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The agreement will address what to do with the Christchurch residential red zone, the square kilometres of suburbia in eastern Christchurch that suffered a disastrous mix of liquefaction, ground subsidence and lateral spreading. The subsidence means significant parts are at increased risk of flooding and/or do not drain as well as other land does after flood events, which means it is no longer inhabitable even if the earthquake damage can be fixed. Residents want a mix of ecoparks, forest and flood protection, but no one is quite sure how that will turn out.

It will also look at assets that have been completed such as the Christchurch Convention Centre, currently under construction and due for completion in 2020. It will also look at what happens to ones such as the Christchurch Bus Exchange, which has been completed as well as ones that have yet to be commenced such as the stadium.The stadium has been controversial for the lack of commitment by the biggest probable users in terms of helping to fund it.

The end agreement might be liberating, with Christchurch now finally a free city again, left to finish its recovery from one of the blackest days in New Zealand history. Or it might be a millstone that is contentious in future elections. But come what may, today will be interesting one way or the other.