Lincoln scientists test plants' flammability to understand why wildfires take off

Lincoln scientists have been hanging out in their carpark recently to throw some plants on the barbie.

No, not eggplant or asparagus, but gorse, clover and ryegrass.

It wasn't some wild food festival - but a test of the plants' flammability in an effort to understand why wildfires take off.

They're not particularly tasty looking, because the plants being tossed on what these scientists have dubbed the 'plant BBQ' are not for eating.

"This work we've been doing is part of a project called fighting fire with food. And that project aims to determine the flammability of different crops and pastures that are commonly planted here in Canterbury," said Tim Curran, Associate Professor of ecology at Lincoln University.

The need for work like this has been hammered home by the northern hemisphere's summer of fire.

Canada's worst fire season on record burned millions of hectares, wildfires in Greece forced thousands to be evacuated, and even before summer arrives our Australian neighbours are already battling bushfires.

"We know that fires, and destructive wildfires in particular, are increasing in their frequency around the world," Prof Curran said.

An El Niño summer means fire experts here are preparing for the worst.

"Coming into Christmas, certainly after Christmas, we're expecting fire danger to increase. Particularly along the eastern coast of the North and South Islands," said Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) wildfire manager Tim Mitchell.

Globally, 10 percent of fires start on agricultural land, so Prof Curran and his colleagues have set fire to 47 common crops to see how flammable they are.

"Cereal crops like wheat and barley, we also measured various vegetable crops so things like snowpeas and potatoes," he said.

Apple and pear trees were the most flammable species tested and late summer crops like wheat and barley were also quick to burn. But they were the minority.

"Most of the crops that we tested were very low in flammability, in fact just over half of the species we tested didn't burn at all on our plant BBQ," Prof Curran said.

That includes many vegetables, grapes, pasture grasses and legumes. Many native plants were also less combustible.

This research will allow farmers in fire-prone landscapes to design their cropping schedules to reduce fire risk, which will be necessary as parts of the country become hotter, dryer and windier due to climate change.

"Rather than planting for the sake of food production you can have strips of low flammable or fire retardant plants that act as a barrier," said Thomas Maxwell, Lincoln University senior lecturer in grazing lands ecology.

Because land users will need to work together to fight fire risk in a more fire-prone world.