Long, hot summer on the way

A long hot summer is coming, and while that's good news for barbecues and backyard cricket, farmers and rural firefighters are preparing to battle drought and wildfires.

Forecasters predict this summer's El Nino weather pattern will be one of the top three or four driest on New Zealand record.

The previous three strongest El Ninos - 1972/73, 1982/83 and 1997/98 - all resulted in droughts.

National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) is forecasting that this summer could be just as bad.

The worst hit areas will be the northern parts of the North Island and eastern areas of both islands.

"We think that this El Nino - and it's already very strong - has a distinct possibility of being a top three, top four El Nino,'' said Niwa forecaster Chris Brandolino.

While Niwa won't go as far as predicting drought, they say there is "an elevated risk'' of drought.

Rural firefighters and farmers are now being told to prepare for the worst.

Equipment is being readied, staff trained, and awareness campaigns are being launched in danger areas, according to National Rural Fire Officer Kevin O'Connor.

"Around the country, rural fire authorities are already actively planning for this coming fire season which is certainly fronting up to be pretty dry and pretty extreme,'' he said.

Fire restrictions and bans will likely be imposed earlier than usual.

Forestry companies and rural communities are being encouraged to prepare now.

"If farmers and foresters want to burn, they should think about doing it in the next month, and get some advice from their local rural fire authority,'' Mr O'Connor said.

Farmers need to be checking their records or asking neighbours for advice in order to prepare for the big dry, Federated Farmers' spokeswoman for adverse events Katie Milne said.

"It's all about having plans and strategies in place and being aware that things could be very bad,'' she said.

Lifestyle farmers also need to ensure they have enough feed for their pets, Ms Milne said, or else be prepared to move them on.

If the drought begins to take its toll on farmers, they should seek help.

"Droughts can be insidious when it's day in day out, and you can't do anything about watching your income and assets not doing much,'' Ms Milne said.

"It's important that we stick together.''

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said he would be "keeping a close eye'' on how the El Nino develops.

He echoed Federated Farmers' position that carefully planning for the possible drought is key.

"Farmers should continue work with their advisers and industry bodies who are best placed to provide expert advice that is appropriate to their needs on how best to prepare.''

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