A permanent fire ban will be enacted this year, says Hawke's Bay Regional Council chairman Rex Graham.

"I have had enough of people burning fires irresponsibly without regard for their neighbour's health," he said.

Hawke's Bay Regional Council chairman Rex Graham says education has failed as a fire prevention tool.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council chairman Rex Graham says education has failed as a fire prevention tool.

"I actually wanted to do it last year but we felt - fellow councillors felt - we could change this by education, but we have failed in that endeavour."

This month, air quality in Hastings breached the national limit of 50mg of PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns), which is not unusual over winter in Napier and Hastings, when smoke from home-heating fires joins smoke from rural fires.

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Hawke's Bay District Health Board medical officer of health Nick Jones said thousands of people in Hawke's Bay had medical conditions that made them sensitive to smoke.

He said when smoke levels exceeded the national limit it was "definitely a day for people who have got a pre-existing heart or lung condition to stay indoors in evenings and mornings".

Prolonged exposure to smoke could cause heart and lung conditions, he said.

"Smoke from wood fires contains particulates [which] can get into your lungs.

"Depending on how small they are depends on how far they can get into your lungs and how much damage they can do.

"The ones between 2.5 and 10 [microns in diameter] cause a lot of irritation and problems in the upper airways.

"Then the smaller particles get into the base of the lung and the really small ones can get into your blood.

Thousands of people in Hawke's Bay had medical conditions that made them sensitive to smoke. Photo / File
Thousands of people in Hawke's Bay had medical conditions that made them sensitive to smoke. Photo / File

The particulates can cause breathing probelms and long-term inflammation can lead to issues such as heart disease.

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Millions of dollars have been spent on low-emission home fires in Napier and Hastings airsheds, which are restricted-fire zones aimed at keeping air pollution below the national limit.

But growers inside the airsheds can still burn diseased wood or whole orchards of green trees for development.

With smoke levels in airsheds still breaching the national level, focus has swung to rural fires, which have increased because of unwanted apple trees being burned large-scale to make way for new varieties.

Graham said the concept of airsheds was "utter and complete nonsense".

"You cannot control smoke in them. A change in the wind and you will get a change in the drift of smoke.

"It's a bit like having a no-peeing zone in a public swimming pool. It is a ridiculous concept."

Graham said larger growers were co-operating and looking at different ways to get rid of wood waste "but a lot of the smaller growers still aren't".

He said he would ask central Government to increase penalties for open fires because some people were happy to risk a fine rather than change practice.

NZ Apples & Pears chief executive Alan Pollard said penalising those breaking existing rules was the answer, instead of a blanket fire ban.

Smaller operations may not be able to afford the extra cost of alternatives to burning, he said.

"Orchardists really do understand the responsibility they have for the environment and that is why, particularly with the assistance of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association, they have worked with the regional council to put together a series of guidelines of best practices to ensure they can dispose of this sort of material in a highly responsible way.

"The uptake has been very good and I would have to say the majority of orchardists have complied with these guidelines.

"But it is fair to say there have been those that haven't.

"For the number of infringement notices that were issued last year a very small proportion were orchardists.

"Our view, very strongly, is that if there are people that aren't complying, then they should be taken to task and the council should use the full weight of the law to get them to stop.

"If the penalties aren't sufficient motivation to do that then the penalties should change."

The fire ban announcement comes after a smoky start to the burning season for town and country, caused by pent-up demand after the fire-safety ban was extended over summer and Covid-19 lockdown.

The burning season runs through winter, coinciding with home-heating fires.

Graham said no other civilised country in the world allowed open fires as routine practice.

"You cannot open burn even in China, let alone in Germany and France and the UK."

He said in his opinion people on lifestyle sections were worst offenders of airshed rules.

"I've been going up Te Mata Peak every day. Last night, just before dusk there were seven fires. By the time dusk was hitting there were 12.

"They are lighting them at night to avoid prosecution."

The fire ban would be enacted through a special plan change of the Regional Planning Committee.

Graham said he believed there was sufficient support among committee members for the special plan change, which would be open to submissions.

"I'm very interested to hear how they will justify polluting our air in their submissions."

Exceptions to the ban would be made for practices such as hangi and barbecues.

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