An increase in wildfires around the world should act as a warning for potential large-scale fires in New Zealand forests and rural landscapes this summer, says the NZ Institute of Forestry.
NZIF president James Treadwell is calling for better co-ordination and management of fire risks, saying there is an urgent need to prioritise at-risk land management issues over deployment of firefighting aircraft and building more fire trucks.
He said fire risks specific to NZ are the vast areas covered by self-sown exotics or retired hill and high country tussock grasslands, which were historically burned every seven to 10 years by lease-holding farmers.
“The ceasing of these practices has resulted in an accumulation of fuel across the hill and high country landscape throughout the country,” Treadwell said.
Previously, much of this landscape had lower fuel loadings, enabling swift containment of unwanted fires. But Treadwell said this is no longer the case. In 2020, wildfires destroyed 5043ha of self-sown exotics and tussock at Lake Ohau and 2230ha at Pukaki Downs. In 2019 they consumed 5088ha of tussock grassland at Deep Stream.
He said the shift from a La Niña to an El Niño weather pattern this summer is expected to significantly elevate fire danger levels, particularly in the East Coast.
The NZIF is urging Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) to collaborate with landowners and forestry professionals to promote and ensure better management and support in reducing fuel loadings in the hill and high country environment.
Treadwell also wants to see an improvement in fire prevention awareness and preparedness, including powerline maintenance and automatic cutouts, and restrictions on high fire risk activities during times of high fire danger.
“Specifically, NZIF would like to see focus directed towards reducing fuel loadings on areas covered in self-sown exotics and controlled fuel reduction burning on public Crown lands.
“A comprehensive training programme, to ensure there is a sufficient resource of rural forest firefighters who can safely operate in tall timber, hill and high country environments, is also sorely needed,” Treadwell said.
Failure to take action could lead to repeated forest losses as witnessed from past wildfires – and in the wildfires currently happening in Greece, he said.