Scientists studying wildfire behaviour amid South Island's record-dry summer

Parts of the South Island are breaking records for dry weather readings, resulting in extreme fire risk conditions. 

A team of researchers is studying how fires behave under these extreme conditions and developing models to predict the spread of wildfires and reduce any future damage. 

Fanned by wind, fuelled by dry vegetation and eventually houses, the 2020 fire at Lake Ohau left 40 homes completely destroyed, yet others unscathed. 

It's one of the fires that researchers are studying to develop advanced modelling systems to then predict the spread of wildfires.  

"It is a programme that focuses on understanding wildfires. How they burn, why they burn, but also how they transition in the urban interface," Canterbury University Atmospheric Dynamis Associate Professor Marwan Katurji said.  

As climate change tightens its grip, the summer forecast is longer and hotter. 

The study comes amid a New Zealand summer of record-high temperatures.
The study comes amid a New Zealand summer of record-high temperatures. Photo credit: Newshub

"We've always had wildfires in New Zealand but increasingly those fires are becoming larger and involving more people and property and the fuel types are changing," FENZ wildfire scientist Grant Pearce said.  

Since 2017, wildfires in New Zealand have cost the country more than $82 million - predicting the fire's path could be priceless.  

"We're hoping that these coupled models could give us the tools to build scenarios so when wildfires do happen we do not have to lose a lot of property and no life," Katurji said.  

It could also change where we build and how.  

"How do we change the landscape? Maybe we need to thin the forest," he suggested. 

The threat of wildfires is now so critical, Crown research institute SCION and Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) are a part of the research.  

"Research is a key component to improving the way we do things understanding how the environ is changing. Understanding how fires are going to burn under climate change and under more extreme conditions," Pearce explained.  

And potentially reduce the devastation they can cause.