Wildfire season to kick off earlier this year, Fire and Emergency warns

Fire and Emergency is calling on people to prepare their properties sooner rather than later.
Fire and Emergency is calling on people to prepare their properties sooner rather than later. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Tess Brunton of RNZ

The danger of wildfires is on the rise with forecasts of a hotter, drier, windier summer.

Fire and Emergency says the wildfire season could kick off earlier this year, and it is calling on people to start preparing their properties sooner rather than later.

The last few years have been quieter on the fire front.

But NIWA meteorologist Ben Noll said El Niño was taking hold, with winds predicted to strengthen as the season progressed - particularly from the west which could warm up and dry out the land.

"We've got some concerns that there could be a number of regions of the country that see potentially drier than normal conditions over the season ahead."

Fire and Emergency national wildfire manager Tim Mitchell said this fire season would be different.

"Warmer, drier and windier conditions, particularly in the eastern areas of both islands and into Auckland and Northland, and that's really going to drive up the fire danger in those areas."

He was concerned New Zealanders may be more complacent about the growing risk.

"Obviously, we've come out of a really wet winter and I know for many people, thinking about the fire danger seems an odd thing to start thinking about now."

But that was necessary given the information from NIWA and the likely conditions, Mitchell said.

The Hawaii wildfires which killed more than 100 people showed that fires could take hold and cause destruction in unexpected areas, he said.

"While we understand there are areas of the country which see high fire danger days every year, actually, fires can occur anywhere. Wherever there's that build up of vegetation, under the right conditions, particularly if it's windy conditions, a single spark and away a wildfire can go."

Department of Conservation national fire manager Aroha Hughes was also preparing for a more active fire season.

"Probably a little worrying in some ways because we've had a couple of years where there hasn't been as much fire risk because it's been a bit wetter and the attention towards fires and safety around it isn't as front of mind as it would have been a couple of years ago when we were having bigger fires."

Recent weather had made conditions ripe for fire, she said.

"We haven't had a true summer or winter really so it's been wet, it's been sunny. Things like to grow and that means there's a bit of work to be done to try and clear some of those fuel loads where we need to so that we can reduce that risk.

"[Be]cause once it dries out, it's just tinder."

There was not a wildfire season, there was a risk year-round, she said.

Conservation staff were working to manage the fuel load and remove weeds, but Hughes said they managed a large amount of land and they could not do it all.

That meant they had to factor in the likely fire hotspots, where visitors would be and biodiversity - and think about what to save.

"Are we going to try and save certain things, pull them out? There's a whole plethora of work that we have to do in terms of readiness of trying to not have a fire and what happens if we do actually get in that situation."

She wanted more education about wildfires.

"There's just not a lot of knowledge out there anymore, [that] is the biggest challenge in trying to find the avenues to increase the advocacy for that. School used to teach things and that's not the way it's going anymore as we become more urbanised."

She urged visitors to DOC land to make sure they knew when they could and could not light a fire, and how to use fire safely.

Canterbury-based volunteer firefighter Emily Sutton was preparing for the summer ahead.

"Hopefully not as big as they think it might be. But they're just the wee rumours that we hear around that it's going to be a big season.

"I think Aussie has mentioned the same from people that we've been speaking to, so I suppose just gearing up for whatever happens and being ready for it."

Fire and Emergency was encouraging people to start preparing their properties by removing wood piles from near buildings, improving access and clearing vegetation growth, and use the checkitsalright website for guidance and tips.