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Preparing for a ‘busy’ fire season

Wairarapa is preparing for a “busier than usual fire season” this summer, as an El Niño weather pattern is expected to bring drier conditions, according to Craig Cottrill, Fire and Emergency NZ [Fenz] assistant commander for the Wellington region.

Fenz is meeting with other agencies with responsibilities to respond to fire events in the region at the end of September “to make sure the plans we have in place are robust and will be able to deliver a coordinated response to a busier than normal fire season,” Cottrill said.

This includes ensuring each district can “identify and then mobilise” deployable resources in the event of a large-scale fire, as well as making sure districts in receipt of those resources “have mechanisms in place to cater for [them]”, such as catering, accommodation and “everything else to host out-of-district” fire-fighting teams.

Steps will also be taken “to make sure that right across our region we’ve got available the heavy machinery resources that we can actually mobilise and get to large vegetation fires within a reasonable period of time”, Cottrill said.

Malte Coulmann, Forest Enterprises regional manager for the lower North Island, said preparing for the summer fire season was “a live topic of discussion” within the business.

But, while Coulmann acknowledged there “will be a higher fire risk” in Wairarapa this summer, the risk in the last two years has been “abnormally low”.

Forest Enterprises, which manages about 20,000 hectares of commercial forest in Wairarapa, would be putting in place the “normal processes we haven’t had to rely too much on in the last few years”, he said.

Monitoring the fire danger index to determine fire danger and fire behaviour and adapting operational practice in response is a key strategy.

“We’ll start restricting [activities] progressively as the fire danger increases,” Coulmann said.

At the lower end of fire risk, checks on contract crews in the forest are made to ensure they “have fire extinguishers, firefighting overalls, helmets, that sort of equipment.”

As the fire danger index creeps up the scale, high-risk operations such as roadside mowing, slashing, thinning, felling and extraction are stopped or undertaken at cooler times of the day.

Powerco, which has about 51,700 customers in Wairarapa across 31,066 connections, also has “mitigation, response and recovery plans in place to both help reduce the risk of fires occurring and to respond effectively in the event that a fire does occur”, a statement from the company said.

Part of Powerco’s plan involves collaborating with Wellington Region Emergency Management [WREMO] “to identify community halls in Wairarapa that can be used as hubs during emergencies – like wildfires – to ensure they’re set up to easily turn on generation at the hall, keeping customers connected in the event of widespread power outages.”

WREMO confirmed there are currently 17 community emergency hubs in schools, halls and clubrooms across the region, each supplied with a hub kit containing equipment “to help communities self-organise and link with the official response”, a statement said.

In the event of a wildfire event, WREMO said the emergency hubs would be in places “where affected communities could gather” and support one another.

“At the hub, people can ask for and offer help by sharing skills and resources among the community. Or it may just be that the hub is opened as a place where people can be in the company of others facing a similar situation.”

People living rurally can also make a difference to the region’s wildfire preparedness, Cottrill said.

“It’s all about creating a defensible space around your house”, Cottrill said.

“You don’t want highly flammable species like manuka or kanuka growing up close to the house.

“You want to clear – particularly on the downslope portion of your property – a good 20–30 metres of highly flammable material from not directly around your house.”

While Cottrill is not predicting “Canada-scale fires” this summer, he is “in no doubt our environment will change in the next 5–10 years,” and at some stage, “we will see larger fires.”

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