As Wānaka awakened from its New Year’s celebrations, our new decade was started in a haze (but not the one we were expecting). The town, along with the rest of the South Island, had been smothered by smoke originating from fires in South East Australia, over 2100km away.
Australia is facing unprecedented destruction in its current wildfire emergency. Current estimates put losses at 2,500 buildings (including 1,500 homes) along with six million hectares of land. Tragically this has involved loss of half a billion animals, foremost the loss of 20 human lives with many more missing.
It can be expected that the events unfolding in Australia will usher in policy to mitigate the impact of fires on human existence. Preemptive measures and training can be undertaken, planning can be done to avoid placing human settlements in ‘at risk’ areas of rural fire. However, will such steps be sufficient or adaptable enough to account for evolving environmental risk, a result of climate change? Researchers indicate we will likely experience more fires of greater severity in the coming years, highlighting the need for societal reform if we are to manage this growing problem.
Put into perspective, an estimated 5,500 hectares is lost to rural fires in New Zealand every year (2019 was 7400ha). Whilst this has catastrophic impact on human existence, the damage on our native flora and fauna often goes untold. The native habitat of our iconic species, such as the kiwi, tui and wood pigeon (kereru) is also destroyed as a result of fire.
In addressing New Zealand’s own wildfire risk we must design a system that is suited to our way of living and unique ecosystems. There is evidence that rural fire suppression and prevention in some parts of the world increases the future risk associated with wildfire (meaning that in some areas fires are beneficial and a natural process). Controlled burns that have been useful tools for land management are now facing increased scrutiny over suitability. This amongst many other practices will have to be addressed in managing the growing risk of rural fires.
When considering our future action, stewardship of the natural world must be a consideration. It is currently the responsibility of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) to fight rural fires. This fire season has seen a collaboration from these two Crown entities to address the impact of human caused fires on New Zealand wildlife. Online and in your local DOC offices, native birds are part of a campaign to raise awareness of responsible behavior and reduction of fire risk, for more information see www.checkitsalright.nz
Our prayers and thoughts are with all those impacted by the fires in Australia as we move into 2020.
Ben Goddard is regional chairman for Forest and Bird and a volunteer firefighter.