Collaboration needed over prevention

A fire-ravaged remains of a house near the shore of Lake Ohau. Photo: Supplied
A fire-ravaged remains of a house near the shore of Lake Ohau. Photo: ODT files.
In times of catastrophe, it is understandable for people affected to want to blame something or someone for it.

Sometimes there will be a simple answer, but in the case of the devastating Lake Ohau fire, it may not be as straightforward as it seems at first glance.

Some farmers have been quick to blame the rapid fire spread on fire fuel loads on South Island Department of Conservation land, something Federated Farmers says it has been warning about for years.

Farmers contend allowing some grazing on parts of Doc land would reduce the amount of combustible grass, scrub and immature wilding pines.

Conservation minister Eugenie Sage fanned the flames of ill-feeling over this with her post-fire undiplomatic suggestion Federated Farmers was making a push for free grazing.

Federated Farmers high country chairman Rob Stokes was quick to call this a cheap shot, saying farmers were not looking for free anything, but wanting, through partnership and contracts, to try to reduce a serious risk to safety, private property and the environment.

Grazing such areas could be "more of a headache than a gain" because of difficulty mustering stock and the poor quality of the feed.

Short-term grazing arrangements were costly and long-term arrangements for farmers with immediately adjacent Doc land were sensible, he said.

He said Federated Farmers recognised there were areas of the Doc estate where it was totally inappropriate to have livestock, but on less sensitive areas low-level grazing could be helpful to lower the fire fuel.

Ms Sage’s other comments may have been lost in the clamour over her grazing jibe. These included her view we need to manage human activity because nature does not start fires, except by occasional lightning strikes (something which we understand is rare in New Zealand).

She also pointed out the Government had put $100million over four years into controlling wilding pines.

University of Canterbury plant ecology professor Dave Kelly says Doc’s strategy is the correct one and that the regeneration of native beech, which is less flammable than other trees, is the way to go. He also made the point that there is flammable material on farms as well as the Doc estate.

Prof Kelly acknowledges regeneration is a long-term plan and in the short term there is likely to be an increase in flammability. Since fires are usually caused, accidentally or deliberately, by human activity, then we need to manage that better.

There is yet to be a full investigation into the cause of this fire, the most serious of several large vegetation fires we have already seen in the South this year. (Early suggestions were it could have been power lines arcing in the strong winds.)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was measured in her observations about the Lake Ohau fire, wanting a clearer picture about its ignition, what might have acted as an accelerant "and what we might need to do about that".

Minister Sage said there needed to be a conversation about "land management in the bigger picture" in future. This does not seem a million miles away from Federated Farmers’ suggestion its representatives need to sit down with Doc for a "sensible discussion" on the fire fuel load issue.

We would hope examination of these recent fires will reflect widely on all the relevant issues, including whether communities around the country close to fire-prone areas have well-rehearsed emergency plans on a par with the doughty Lake Ohau residents.

Weather patterns suggest the risk of more frequent events like these is increasing. Strategies need to cover avoiding them in the first place as well as ways of reducing their impact on those unfortunate occasions when we fall short of that ideal.

Common sense suggests such planning will be most effective if it occurs in a collaborative rather than a combative atmosphere.



It is animal grazing and exotic pine plantations that are fueling the destruction of our land. Animal grazing in landscapes composed largely of native species include reduction of species richness, loss of biodiversity, desertification, loss of native topsoil and increases in surface runoff. In fact, overgrazing can be considered the major cause of desertification. Which would you prefer, smug animal farmers or a rich diverse ecosystem? Dessert or native forests and biodiverse grasslands?

In my lifelong experience farmers are never motivated by care for the community or the environment, they are motivated only by the almighty $. Federated Farmers attempts at propaganda here by trying to explain how low level grazing will actually help maintain the ecosystem is just plain rubbish. They have no scientific evidence to back this claim up, it is a simple trumpian call to enrich themselves. If they had any true evidence they would have led with that.
If a farmer ever says, "this will be good for you" then question it. Demand proof, or at the very least demand they pay for it at commercial rates.

I was an, er, rousie, in a North Island woolshed. Nothing smug or Trumpian (Nixonesque). Run on farmworkers' rules. Set hours and "Smoko" {Oh, my God, you can delete that word, can't you?}.






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