Rethinking preparedness for wildfires

Hot, dry conditions led to an October blaze at Lake Ohau Village that razed more than 50...
Hot, dry conditions led to an October blaze at Lake Ohau Village that razed more than 50 buildings. Photo: ODT files
Awareness is growing about the risks of wildfires burning down houses and threatening lives.

This was seen more as an overseas peril, particularly for Australia where fires rage and ravage most summers. Who could forget the scale of the infernos through the summer of 2019-20? The ash even smudged the skies of New Zealand and left a dirty film across this country’s glaciers.

The worst tragedies were on and around Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. A wind change caused a fire to roar through the town of Marysville, near Melbourne. All but 14 of 400 buildings in the area were destroyed and 34 people killed.

We have just also witnessed widescale destruction, as well as death, in the massive Californian blazes in June last year.

The Port Hills have been on fire again recently, although not on the scale of 2017 when more than 1600ha were burned, one firefighter died and nine houses and two other buildings destroyed.

The Nelson fires of February 2019 forced mass evacuations.

But what has perhaps struck home most to those in the South is the Lake Ohau fire of October last year.

Almost 50 houses were destroyed. The cost of damage has been tallied to about $35million.

New Zealanders and this country’s authorities are realising fires are becoming more frequent as temperatures rise and weather extremes become more common.

This means issues about both consents and being prepared must be rethought.

That could well mean new housing must be restricted or even stopped in fire-prone vegetation places.

It is too late to stop the building on the northern slopes of Mt Iron, Wanaka. Homes, with wonderful aspects and outlooks are, however, surrounded by stands of manuka and kanuka.

Residents themselves are concerned and believe changes to mitigate the risks are too slow.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council, as evidenced by comments at a meeting last month organised by Fire and Emergency New Zealand, Emergency Management Otago, the Department of Conservation, the council and the Wanaka Community Board are aware of the threats.

More than 370 properties and 250 buildings are in the Mt Iron red zone fire-risk area. Access issues and the mix of urban and rural recreational activities add to the risks.

Fenz had even advised residents to cut back the scrub around their properties but the district plan did not let them.

As Wanaka resource consents team leader Richard Campion said at the meeting, historically the district plan had been more about protecting the vegetation, landscape and the environment which made this part of the country so special.

He said the community needed to start thinking about how it addressed the tension between the Resource Management Act and measures to mitigate a fire hazard.

There needs, though, to be prompt action, not just talk and the usual slow bureaucratic processes, because a fire could well rage tomorrow or next week.

Although the manuka and kanuka also plays an important role in erosion control, and although landscape values will unfortunately suffer, it is vital houses have buffer zones around them.

Other means to both protect houses and allow for quick evacuations are already in place, and no doubt need refinement and strengthening.

Fire and Emergency also has a list of advice, including not storing the likes of firewood or furniture covers under or against the house; having a non-flammable doormat; keeping gutters clean in summer so embers do not catch; using stone, cement, tiles and green grass to create a house clear zone; keeping summer lawns watered and green and removing trees, long grass, shrubs and logs branches, twigs and needles within 10m of the house.

There will also be other places in the South where the threat of wildfires grows with each passing year. Parts of Naseby, for example, must be vulnerable.

We can live with the awful loss of homes. We cannot live with loss of life.

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