Smouldering costs hint at burning future

The Deep Stream fire was more than an inconvenience to Dunedin residents asked to conserve water: it was a dreadful reminder of what our region can expect as our climate changes.

The fire began at the edge of Te Papanui Conservation Park near Middlemarch and burned through about 5000ha of remote tussock and scrub before firefighters could declare their days-long battle won.

About 1100ha of the land is managed by the Department of Conservation and most of the rest by the Dunedin City Council, which takes up to 80% of the city's drinking water from the Deep Stream Catchment.

Water from the catchment was contaminated by ash and a small amount of run-off containing fire suppressant chemicals. The council immediately stopped taking water from the strategically important scheme.

The call to conserve water suddenly made the remote scrubland seem far from remote from Dunedin. Over time, it became clear it is also far from remote from the interests of Otago tax and rate payers.

There are myriad costs when fighting fires, and those costs are all-but unavoidable. Fire and Emergency New Zealand, Doc and the council pay their staff wages but these are only the start.

Contractors, including helicopter, transport and earth-moving companies, are often needed, and even many of the volunteers who turn out to help are still paid by their employers.

Costly specialist equipment is employed and many other measures including, in this case, ground and water testing, often for many days or even weeks in such a fire's aftermath.

None of the agencies know how much fighting the fire, and its aftermath, will cost nor how those costs may be apportioned. The council knows, though, that water testing will cost $300 a day over some weeks.

Doc will add to the spend as it surveys the damage to an area that is home to a huge variety native plants and animals, including 547 species of native insects and many rare wetland plants and tussocks.

It may find itself spending even more if it is determined the fire started on Doc land, and a taxpayer-provided budget may need to offset the costs borne by Fenz and its supporting agencies.

Doc ought to be alive to this and ought to have the budgetary resources set aside to manage and maintain the land it holds in trust for all New Zealanders. Paying ought to be relatively painless.

But all is not pain-free. There will be an increasing unease as to the scale of the task that lies ahead for Doc, and others, as landowners and firefighters consider the ever-increasing risk posed by climate change.

As insurers signal premiums will rise with the threat of fire and flood, councils and the Government face a tough time planning to fund their response to a slow-moving climate-related train crash.

Researchers say coastal and central Otago will be at an even greater risk of fire as temperatures and wind intensify. They say Dunedin's risk of very high and extreme forest fire danger days could rise from an average of 5.7 a year to 18.3 in 2040. It will be 22.2 by 2090.

It is comforting to know Fenz's fire planning takes into account predictions of more high fire risk days and more extreme weather, and that it is working to determine what it needs to do to be ready for them.

As this continues, it is hoped councils and government agencies appraise themselves of Fenz's work to help provide a foundational understanding of the risks and liabilities they, too, may face.

This will almost certainly help as they consider whether they adequately fund for the maintenance of the land they have - for the provision of, say, firebreaks - and whether they can expect taxpayers to wear the cost of future risk.

There were plenty of grumblings during the high country tenure review that Doc would never be funded well enough to effectively manage all the land it had, a call renewed on the West Coast on the weekend.

Officials have yet to say how the Deep Stream fire started. It is only certain that we must keep plan for the financial, ecological and even political cost of such fires in a climate-changed future.

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