All machinery that could create a spark should be banned on days of extreme fire danger, an independent review into the response to last summer's Tasman Fires has concluded.
New Zealand's biggest wildfire in 72 years was sparked by a contractor disc-ploughing a tinder-dry, stony paddock in Pigeon Valley 30km south of Nelson on February 5.
The blaze would burn for weeks, covering 2300ha, and result in thousands of people being evacuated.
An independent operation review by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) has been released this morning.
While it found that, overall, the Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) response was positive and successful, and had taken lessons from the 2017 Port Hills fires, it has made 12 recommendations to improve future fire responses.
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Although New Zealand has no extensive history of large scrub fires, the team of reviewers stressed that climate change and the associated expected rise in temperatures and decreased rainfall may see fires increasingly become part of the hazard landscape.
One of the key recommendations suggests that FENZ be able to set a total prohibition on all forms of spark-producing activity and declare a Total Fire Ban that applies to the whole community.
During its review process, FENZ showed guidelines in development intended for the "elimination or limitation" of heat and spark generating activities in periods of elevated fire danger.
"We commend this initiative, noting that it appears to have proceeded to date on a voluntary basis in that area only. We are of the view that there is a need for national guidelines in this space and that serious consideration should be given to making them mandatory," the report says.
"It is not unreasonable to expect that all stakeholders (including forestry) are required to refrain from specific activities that could produce sparks during a period of extreme fire dangers."
Total fire bans for the coming day should be declared based on the afternoon forecast and declared in 24 hour blocks, the report says.
To allow business continuity, restrictions on activities through the declaration of a Total Fire Ban must be a day-to-day occurrence set the evening prior based on the latest predicted weather predictions.
"The declaration of a Total Fire Ban, as currently practised in many Australian jurisdictions, is not taken lightly and is only used when the indices are predicted to reach significant levels of heightened risk."
While businesses and community representatives expressed concern about the impact of fire restrictions on work, the review says changes to work patterns, including working at night outside the peak fire danger periods of the day, or stopping work once the broadcast Fire Weather Index (FWI) reaches a predetermined level, "any such impacts can be minimised".
The review is also critical of the lack of a strategic plan for the choppers and planes fighting the fire from the air.
At its peak, FENZ deployed 23 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft, but the sole initial Air Attack Supervisor (AAS) managing the aircraft in the developing stages of the fires was focused on maintaining safe operating distance between aircraft.
"The review was informed that this initial attack mode operated for the first three days … It appeared to the review, however, that through no fault of the Air Attack Supervisor, these aircraft were operating with minimal strategic direction. With no established tactics or aerial firefighting section of the IAP (Incident Action Plan) to work to, they were effectively alternating from one flare up to the other operating with minimal ground support and trying to focus on placing water on the head fire. It is well known that aircraft will not usually extinguish a fire on their own and they are most effectively employed working on joint suppression strategies with ground resources."
Other recommendations suggest better wildfire related training and use of trained and experienced Fire Behaviour Analysts, more fire breaks, and on days of elevated fire danger in high-risk area, more resources like heavy machinery strategically-placed on stand-by.
It also says FENZ needs to undertake a comprehensive review of the National Incident Management Teams and their processes, operating policies, training and membership "including an increased focus on predictive services capacity to support fire suppression and consequence management".
The review concludes that everyone should be prepared for future large-scale fires.
"If there is one high-level message that this review communicates with the New Zealand public, we hope it will be that fires of this kind must be expected to occur more frequently in the future, and all stakeholders involved, down to the level of individual residents in fire-prone areas, need to prepare for that."
Speaking from Richmond Fire Station near Nelson this morning, deputy chief executive Raewyn Bleakley said FENZ welcomed the independent review and fully accepts the findings.
"The review is constructive and timely for us as a new organisation," she said.
"The establishment of Fire and Emergency NZ was the first critical step towards addressing the lessons from Port Hills. It brought together 40 separate organisations and 14,000 people, and since then we have been focused on how we can more effectively work with other organisations and agencies during wildfires and other emergency responses."
FENZ national commander Kerry Gregory said they would now develop an action plan to identify how they can incorporate the review findings into work programmes which they expect to have completed by the end of the year.
FENZ will publish regular progress reports on progress from next year.