Thursday, February 22, 2024

Fire risk grows as South Island dries out

Neal Wallace
Rapid drying comes after a growthy spring, which has created a heavy fuel load.
NIWA forecasts indicate much of the region could enter the ‘dry’ category over the next 35 days.
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Much of the South Island is drying out faster than usual, which Fire and Emergency NZ warns is elevating the summer fire risk.

FENZ wildfire specialist Graeme Still said compared with the past five years, soil moisture levels on the South Island’s east coast are falling more rapidly, especially on coastal Otago, North Otago, Canterbury, Marlborough, Central Otago, the Mackenzie Basin, Wairarapa and the Far North.

This rapid drying follows a growthy spring that has created heavy fuel loading.

“The soil moisture deficit is increasing as we speak,” he said.

Fire prohibition orders are in force in those areas, and most of the South Island is under a restricted fire season.

With temperatures soaring as they did over the weekend and were forecast to do so again this weekend, Still said the fire risk is increasing with perfect fire conditions of high temperatures and low humidity.

He urged farmers to ensure machinery maintenance is up to date so exhausts and other engine hot parts are free of flammable debris.

Farmers should consider fire risk when planning activities.

Mowing or topping pasture, for example, could be done early in the morning when moisture levels are high.

“Pick your days. If you don’t need to do it then don’t.” 

If the activity can’t be avoided, he urged the heat of the day be avoided.

“I understand with baling that you want to let the sun get on it, but the heat of the day is not ideal timing.”

Still said FENZ has a website which tells people if they need a permit or whether other fire restrictions apply.

Video guidance is also available on how to safely burn stubble and vegetation heaps.

Meanwhile, Otago water users are being urged to start considering conservation over the coming weeks as water levels in the Manuherekia, Lindis, Taieri, Cardrona, Shag, and Waiwera catchments start falling. 

When minimum flows are hit, consent holders must cease taking water.

“If the current dry period continues for an extended period, particularly in the driest parts of inland Otago, we’ll continue to see a number of rivers run low, so we’re asking people to take practical steps now to reduce water use,” Jo Gilroy, the Otago Regional Council’s acting regulatory manager said.

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