DoC on edge as fire risk across region rises to extreme

By John Maslin

The fire risk across the Wanganui region has ramped up a notch with the Department of Conservation calling for public vigilance as indicators move toward the extreme end of the scale.

Rod Smillie, programme manager of biodiversity threats, at DoC's Whanganui office, told the Chronicle the department had stopped issuing fire permits throughout the 1km buffer zone it controls around all its national parks and reserves land.

Mr Smillie said DoC was technically the largest fire authority in the country and the Whanganui office looked after an area covering 170,000ha, stretching from the Turakina River up to the Patea River and inland in a wedge shape to Taumarunui.

As well, there is a 1km buffer zone around all DoC land that falls under his control and no permits would be issued in those zones until further notice.

"The fire risk across our area is extreme. It's been a great growing season and that means there's heaps of fuel that has dried out. It's 'cured' well and won't take much to spark it," he said.

"The indices are getting close to extreme and, even after a period of rain, ground conditions can dry out very quickly. We're appealing to drivers not to throw their cigarette butts out the car window and for no one to burn off a pile of rubbish."

Mr Smillie said it can take a while for fire to get a hold in forested national parks but, once under way, was extremely difficult to contain and extinguish.

"In 2008, we had a fire at Aotuhia (between the Whanganui River and Whangamomona) that burned for 14 days and destroyed about 150ha. That costs us $700,000.

"That fire got into the tree roots and went underground and even after we thought it was in control it would flare up again."

He said in February of that year fire fighters were battling fires every day of the month and on one day they had five fires to contend with.

"South Taranaki is going to a total fire ban in a day or two and Ruapehu already has a prohibited fire season in place. That's unusual for that district given the amount of rain they generally have but again it shows just how dry the countryside has become," Mr Smillie said.

He also had a message to farmers and landowners bordering DoC land.

"If a fire starts on private land, and we can prove it, then the landowner will end up paying the costs of the firefighting. So our message to landowners is to make sure they've got dedicated rural fire insurance."

He said the public needed to be reminded that the Wanganui coastal zone was a permanent no fire area year round. "If a fire was to start in the dunes behind South Beach, and with an onshore wind blowing, it could quickly spread to plantations behind that coastal area."

He said with the fire risk level as they are currently "you'd never outrun the flames".

"Look what happened with the bush fires in Tasmania. Yet New Zealanders forget that Tasmania is at a lower latitude than we are."

Mr Smillie said anyone seeing smoke should call 111 and ask for fire. The emergency operators will notify the appropriate fire authority. "That could be either the city or town brigade, rural fire service or DoC firefighters."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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