Saturday, December 9, 2023

Lessons learned from Tasman fires

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As record temperatures scythe through the country rural firefighters are anxious the lessons learned from last year’s Tasman fire are acted on sooner rather than later.
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The review of the Tasman fire that ripped through 2300ha last February was released in late October and was generally favourable about how emergency services responded.

Lessons learned and applied from the Christchurch Port Hills fire a year earlier included more streamlined systems for communications between agencies alongside more regular training.

The 46-page report was written by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council. 

The Tasman fire was created by sparks from farm machinery in a paddock next to a forest and came after a deep-seated drought and heatwave in the area.

Farm Forestry Association and Forest Owners Association joint fire committee chairman Sean McBride said implementing recommendations is now well overdue.

The two key areas of attention are about mitigation and management of fires.

Key mitigation recommendations include having strategic and tactical fire management plans in every region, backed by greater public education on fire risks. 

It was also recommended Fire and Emergency NZ establish a set of risk reduction guidelines around heat and spark activities that apply to all parts of the community, not just to forestry.

“The Tasman fires started when farmland was being cultivated in Pigeon Valley and then spread into forest. 

“Forest harvesting crews in the area had stopped working because they were following the Forest Fire Risk Management Guidelines, which showed the fire risk was too high to continue working. There needs to be a lesson taken from that.

“What we were surprised by was the belief by some that this was a one-off event when, in fact, with climate change and higher temperatures this is likely to be more common than that,” McBride said.

FENZ has recommended every region develop a mix of air, ground and incident management teams and machines to put on standby when fire risk is high.

“For Tasman we were bringing in resources from across the country. The issue is not getting the resources, it is what will happen if you have multiple incidents at one time. It does not just include people but also choppers, trucks and machinery.”

The Tasman fire used 23 helicopters and two fixed-wing planes. The early availability of aircraft in Pigeon Valley was thought to be key to the effective early suppression of fires. It is recommended a national capacity to locate and manage suitable aircraft for fires be established.

McBride said forestry companies also have a deep resource of people keen to be skilled in fighting fires. 

There are also more things pastoral landowners can do to mitigate risk factors, including digging more firebreaks around edges of properties and having a good supply of dedicated water on hand.

But McBride also wants to see rural firefighting authorities have a greater advocacy voice at the FENZ table. 

“I know FENZ are in the process of establishing land management forums in the future where farmers and forest owners can get together to look at issues locally.”

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