Fighting fires more than meets the eye

North Canterbury farms are feeling the pinch of scorching summer temperatures leaving dryland paddocks parched and irrigators working hard to maintain ground moisture.

Tim Cronshaw reports.

Fire chiefs are on red alert for further blazes in parched rural Canterbury.

Already this month crews were stretched to put out large fires fanning 320ha with a perimeter of 8.6km in North Canterbury’s Waikari and across 630ha on the Port Hills in Christchurch.

At the peak of the Port Hills fire, 80 crews and nearly 30 fire appliances were at the scene supported by 15 helicopters, two aircraft and heavy machinery as strong northwesterly winds initially hampered them.

Another five helicopters and about 50 firefighters were combating the fast-moving Waikari incident.

This was on top of eight fire trucks containing a grass fire on the side of State Highway 1 northeast of Rolleston and another at Glentui had to be put out.

Only the week before firefighting efforts were spent dousing a flare-up on either side of the main highway in Waipara.

Fire and Emergency has the entire province under a total ban for all fires in the open air.

With little to no relief in the weather forecast for the next two months, the predicted hot, dry, and windy conditions are expected to continue drying vegetation further.

Fire and Emergency Canterbury assistant commander Des Irving at the site of the Waipara fire...
Fire and Emergency Canterbury assistant commander Des Irving at the site of the Waipara fire which jumped the main highway and just avoided a vineyard. He was the incident commander for the large Waikari blaze on farmland .PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Canterbury assistant commander Des Irving said major fires brought home the risk of further outbreaks and the underlying fire danger remained high.

He was reminding people to remain vigilant and to call 111 immediately if they saw smoke.

Strong nor’westerly winds and dry ground cover had made firefighting challenging. The weather outlook into next month was for more "peaks and troughs" with any southerly changes quickly followed by high temperatures and warm winds, he said.

"We had about eight major fires [leading up to the Port Hills blaze] that lasted three days or more and the conditions at the moment are quite hot with temperatures in the high-20s and early 30s with a hot, dry nor’westerly wind drying out any recent rain we’ve had. We are currently in a prohibited fire season across the whole Canterbury district."

The change in fire seasons is based on a drought code. Once it reaches level 300 it is deemed to be extreme with fires likely to include longer-lasting events going underground and needing heavy machinery to put out.

"It means it’s extremely difficult to put the fire out because the fire is burning under the ground as well as on top of the ground.

"If the fire gets into a crown of a forest, for example, that will travel further than the fire burning all the material on the ground. Just because you put the top layer out doesn’t mean to say the fire’s out. You have to go back and put the ground fire as well as the subterranean fire out."

Hanmer Springs was, at one stage this month, at level 450, Godley Head at 470, Akaroa backhills at 600 and Kirwee was about 315.

Since January, three fires had to be contained at Kirwee and crews attended more than 20 smaller fires since the start of the year on top of larger events.

Mr Irving said major fires often lasted several days and tied up ground and air resources.

Smoke was towering over the Port Hills when a large fire spreading across 630ha was at its peak....
Smoke was towering over the Port Hills when a large fire spreading across 630ha was at its peak. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
The recent fire in Waipara was an example of embers spreading fires in the wind, he said.

"Those embers come out and they travel and there was evidence of that fire going across from one side of the highway to the other."

At one stage crews, numbering 80 personnel at its height, had to stop using reticulated water as the local township was down to 11% capacity and switch to irrigation ponds at vineyards.

The cause of the fire, which started about 10km north of Amberley and put vineyards and houses at risk, is still under investigation.

Mr Irving said the fire service looked at the cause of every fire and preferred an education programme to prevent fires.

"In North Canterbury, fire personnel are volunteers so they have to leave their loved ones and jobs to support the community in extinguishing the fire.

"When the fire goes for a number of days, that’s a huge cost both socially, emotionally and financially that we are putting on our volunteers, so prevention is the best thing."

Rural residents are being asked to take extra caution in the hot and dry conditions and avoid carrying out activities that pose a fire risk, such as mowing, welding and driving through long grass.

Mr Irving said rural residents should be mowing in the morning or late evening when it was cooler and have access to water or a fire extinguisher.

Farmers and other service people should be wary of using grinders to cut metal in open paddocks as there had already been two fires started by human error using tools on dry days since December, he said.

"I appreciate farmers need to get hay cut, for example, and baled but we have had a few of those fires as well, so what we ask is they check the fire season and the weather and if it’s a day of high 20s and early 30 degrees and a hot dry wind then reconsider doing it on another day."

Many farmers carry water tanks when using equipment.


 - Other simple steps to make properties easier to defend against fire include:

 - Clearing flammable material from 10m around homes and buildings

 - Moving firewood stacked against houses

 - Clearing gutters of dried leaves and other debris that can easily catch fire

 - Clearing flammable material from under decks

 - Trimming trees and bushes and removing trimmings

 - Keeping grass short by using a trimmer with a nylon line which is safer than a mower or trimmer with a metal blade that could create a spark.