Fire may have silver lining in wilding pine control

It will be months before it is known what impact a massive fire near Lake Pukaki has had on ecosystems in its path, but there is a possibility some small good may come from the incident.

While the loss of property in the Pukaki fire was "terribly tragic", if some of the dense infestation of wilding pines that fuelled the flames was knocked back by the fire, there was a possibility of a silver lining, Mackenzie Basin Wilding Trees Trust chairman Andrew Simpson said yesterday.

"We feel for the people who have lost property. But other than that, it has alleviated a significant problem in certain areas there," Mr Simpson said.

"It’s too early to say how good a job it’s done and we won’t know that until next week perhaps, until we fly [over] it and assess exactly how much has been burned."

Grounded firefighting helicopters at Pukaki Airport yesterday morning. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Grounded firefighting helicopters at Pukaki Airport yesterday morning. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON

Environment Canterbury chief operating officer Nadeine Dommisse said work to remove the core infestation of wildings involved in the fire had been planned to begin this financial year. In the fire area, landowners had done wilding pine control on about 400ha in recent years.

Wildfires from wilding pines were more severe than those involving the vegetation they replaced because they tended to burn hotter and spread faster.

Unlike commercial forests, wilding pine forests did not have firebreaks and were often in inaccessible locations, so were harder to fight, she said.

A Department of Conservation spokeswoman said the Pukaki Flats Conservation Area had not been affected by the fire. Doc was aware the fire had gone through Lake Pukaki Scientific Reserve, but it was too early to know the damage.

Forest and Bird Canterbury-West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink said until the details of the fire were known, its impact was unknown, but the wilding pines were well known to be a threat to the area’s "special native species" and landscape values.

Deputy Principal Rural Fire Officer Steve Oschner would not mind a toothbrush and a change of...
Deputy Principal Rural Fire Officer Steve Oschner would not mind a toothbrush and a change of clothes, as he has been at the fire since Sunday in the same clothes and with very little sleep.

A Ministry for Primary Industries spokesman said

wilding pine forests often included mixed tree sizes and ages, which could allow fire to move from shorter vegetation such as grass and tussock into a forest.

Budget 2020 included $100 million for wilding pine control over the next four years, he said.

Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith said Twizel had been threatened by fire three years ago and the community remained "very anxious" about the threat of vegetation fires.

Minister of Civil Defence Peeni Henare.
Minister of Civil Defence Peeni Henare.

"I know the Government has given us quite a bit of funding — but it hasn’t come quick enough to actually manage ... the growth of trees and fuel that can ignite at a moment’s notice," Mr Smith said.

Minister of Civil Defence Peeni Henare, who visited Twizel yesterday, said he met the owner of the only property that had been destroyed in the latest blaze and said it had been "heartbreaking" for them.The fire was still active yesterday, but Mid-South Canterbury Principal Rural Fire Officer Rob Hands said it was under a blanket of snow, which was a welcome relief.

Some ground crew were sent off the scene and helicopters were stood down, while heavy machinery continued to create a containment area.

Active firefighting would resume later in the week, including the use of thermal imaging, Mr Hands said.

He said the fire started near the Twizel River bed. It was possible it had been caused by a cooking stove being tipped over, but investigators were working to confirm the cause.


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