Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Fire risk continues to heat up across NZ

Neal Wallace
Farmers warned to exercise extreme care, monitoring machines for trash build-up or anything that could cause sparks.
A large fire has broken out in Christchurch’s Port Hills causing mass evacuations. 15 February 2024 New Zealand Herald Photograph by George Heard
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There appears little immediate relief from the extreme fire risk engulfing much of the country, with hot, windy weather forecast for at least the next month.

WeatherWatch chief forecaster Phil Duncan said the early arrival of predominantly westerly winds provoked by the El Niño weather pattern have since Christmas dried out many parts of both islands.

“It’s hat-on-hat conditions, which makes spring more springlike and autumn more autumn-like.

“El Niño conditions have tightened the screws on windy westerlies, which we normally get in autumn.”

Tim Mitchell, national wildfire manager for Fire and Emergency (FENZ), said the fire risk has elevated rapidly in parts of Otago, Canterbury, Marlborough, Wairarapa and Northland since Christmas.

Those areas have prohibitive fire seasons, but not far behind are parts of Nelson, Manawatū, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Waikato, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty and Auckland.

Mitchell said following two wet summers, New Zealand is returning to more of a normal summer dry pattern, although areas have dried rapidly.

“Since Christmas we have had really warm temperatures, gusty wind and a noticeable tail-off in the frequency and amount of rain across much of NZ.”

Duncan said little rain is forecast for the next month with large high pressure systems and westerly winds the dominant weather system. This will keep the east coasts of both islands under a rain shadow.

Fire crews battle the Waikari Valley fire in North Canterbury, which burnt more the 300ha. Photo: George Heard 

For at least the next two months he predicts the lower South Island is likely to average 0.5degC warmer than normal and other parts 1degC warmer.

“We are definitely seeing a very dry weather pattern,” he said.

This coincides with the harvest and Mitchell is urging farmers to maintain their equipment, monitor machines for trash build-up or anything that could cause sparks or is a source of high temperatures that could ignite a fire.

If possible, he said, when crop harvesting, a spray rig or tanker of water should be stationed nearby to help suppress a fire, should one ignite, while awaiting emergency services.

He said 98% of vegetation fires are caused by humans.

Since July 1 last year there have been 2896 vegetation fires covering 4305 hectares. In a normal year there are about 4500 fires covering 7300ha, but, Mitchell said, we are now heading into the main wildfire period.

He warns that with conditions forecast to remain dry, the fire risk could remain high into April.

He urged people to visit to get the latest information on the fire risk, fire restrictions and fire prevention.

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