Thursday, April 25, 2024

Fire sparks questions about DOC choices

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Blaze at North Otago reserve threatens farmland.
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Management of Department of Conservation land has come into question following a vegetation fire in North Otago that threatened neighbouring farmland.

Federated Farmers North Otago dairy chair Otto Dogterom has a run-off block as part of his dairy farming operation for his young stock adjacent to the block of DOC reserve land that went up in flames over a weekend in early March.

The fire was one of several in the tinder-dry region over that period.

“This didn’t need to happen,” Dogterom said.

“For five years this land has not been grazed. I have been always saying it is a fire risk, it needs to be grazed and two years ago, I again offered to graze it for them [the DOC] but they said no, and they had their reasons.

“Now it’s come to this and put neighbouring farmland at risk at the same time.

“All I really can say to that is thank goodness there were no persons harmed and thanks to the firefighters the fire was brought under control and contained before it spread too far.”

Dogterom said there was a “big nor’wester blowing” and it was his dairy farm run-off manager who spotted the fire in its early stages.

“Again I say thank goodness for that.”

But he wants DOC to work with the community.

“DOC hasn’t been communicating, it did not want to listen to local community knowledge. This could have been a very dangerous situation.

“Neighbours are vulnerable, our staff, our homes and our buildings nearby are at risk.  

“It’s easy to make an anti-DOC case, but we still have to live with them. We just want them to work with communities.

“They say this is climate change; well it’s not climate change, it’s man-made change. 

“Yes, they are trying to save a rare plant or something, they totally refused grazing, but if this had been grazed a few times it would not have come to this.”

Dogterom said a regional DOC manager had made contact since the fire.

“Hopefully this is the start of some community communication.”       

The fire in the Earthquakes area near Duntroon burned through about 30 hectares of conservation land.

The incident controller at the fire, Jason Sarich, said firefighters had worked very hard in challenging conditions to contain the fire amid overnight gale-force winds.

A further 30 firefighters and two helicopters that worked on the fire Monday morning were joined by two crews of firefighters from DOC on Monday morning.

Fire and Emergency’s command unit from Timaru was also at the scene.

Most of this fire was in grass, and spread rapidly in the gale-force winds.

“The wind dropped around 7am [Monday morning] and crews were able to get on top of it pretty quickly,” Sarich said.

Once the fire was contained, DOC fire crews worked with helicopters to mop up hot spots and monitor the fireground for the next few days.

DOC coastal Otago operations manager Gabe Davies acknowledged the fire had been stressful for nearby landowners “and our thoughts are with them”. 

He said Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) is leading an ongoing investigation into the fire, looking at the cause and origin. 

The reserve is managed with the goal of maintaining and restoring the natural heritage values at the site. It is noteworthy for its limestone ecosystems, home to several threatened plant species including a nationally critical species of Lepidium or limestone cress and a nationally critical species of Gentianella, which is only known to be found at one other site. The site also has significant cultural and heritage values. 

Davies said DOC recognises fire is a major threat to conservation values given ecosystems that have taken decades to restore can be destroyed by a blaze in seconds,  

He said the fire has started a broader conversation about how the reserve is managed.

“We want to work closely with local landowners and mana whenua to understand their views and how we can work together to manage the site. 

“In general terms, the way we manage land varies from site to site and considers a range of factors, including the ecological, heritage and recreational values and potential fire risk. 

“We always aim to be a responsible neighbour and to work constructively with adjacent landowners.”

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