Total fire ban across Canterbury as drought-like conditions take hold

BROWN PADDOCK: Sheep stand in a dry paddock near the Greendale area.
JOSEPH JOHNSON / Fairfax NZ

BROWN PADDOCK: Sheep stand in a dry paddock near the Greendale area.

Total fire bans will be introduced across Canterbury from midnight Saturday, as drought-like conditions take hold.

The region-wide ban, affecting Christchurch, including Banks Peninsula, Waimakariri, Hurunui and Selwyn will remain in place until "significant" rain lowered fire danger levels, fire authorities say.

Irrigation is also under threat in Canterbury and Otago with forecasts of the region's first "big" drought since 2004 looking increasingly likely.

A flock of birds feast on a crop thats ready for harvesting in a paddock in the West Melton area.
JOSEPH JOHNSON / Fairfax NZ

A flock of birds feast on a crop thats ready for harvesting in a paddock in the West Melton area.

In the past week, fire services fought major vegetation fires in Pines Beach, Twizel and Ashburton, and responded to about 60 other vegetation fires in Canterbury.

Acting rural fire manager Tim Mitchell said the 2014/2015 fire season was drier than last year's. Extreme weather was typical of Canterbury summers.

The bans would mean no outdoor fires could be lit without specific permits, such as for pest or disease control.

Gas-powered commercial devices such as barbecues, stoves and smokers would be permitted, but fires requiring solid fuel such as those in pizza ovens and braziers would not, Department of Conservation technical support Bruce Janes said.

Restrictions were already in place. Selwyn introduced total fire ban on Wednesday.

"We're upping the ante because of the danger," Janes said.

The total fire bans would primarily affect farmers and lifestyle block owners, as those in residential areas were already prohibited from open-air burning, Mitchell said. 

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National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) said there was little chance of "widespread, meaningful rainfall" in Canterbury in the next ten days.

Temperatures of about 30 degrees Celsius were forecast on Saturday, the day the bans came into force.

"There might be a small chance for a few renegade showers around the 12th, but boy, we're talking spotty," Niwa forecaster Chris Brandolino said.

Farmers across the South Island are preparing for drought. 

Irrigation schemes in central and north Otago could be cut from early next week as waterways reached minimum flow.

Federated Farmers South Canterbury president Ivon Hurst predicted the region's first "big" drought since 2004.

North Canterbury was experiencing its driest summer in seven years, North Canterbury Federated Farmers president Lynda Murchison said.

In Mid Canterbury, irrigation demand exceeded supply as river levels declined, Federated Farmers said.

"It's slowly getting drier and drier," Mid Canterbury farmer Chris Allen said. 

"It's very concerning but we've just got to get on as best as we can."

IrrigationNZ said the conditions, much like those of the 2012-13 summer, would cost the New Zealand economy $1 billion.

Janes urged caution when using machinery such as mowers, weedeaters, tractors, grinders, welders, and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Fire authorities had the power to halt or restrict activities which could spark fires , such as operating farming machinery, on a case-by-case basis.

"Some people on ride-on mowers will mow away merrily and strike a stone and think, 'oh, I'll have to sharpen my blade.' And they go on their way not realising a fire's started behind them," Janes said.

They encouraged mowing in the morning when there was dew on the ground and temperatures were cooler.

AT A GLANCE 

Permitted: Commercial, gas-powered devices such as barbecues, stoves, and smokers.

Banned: Fires requiring solid fuel such as campfires, brick and charcoal barbecues, fire pits, braziers, pizza ovens.

* Fire ban takes effect from midnight on Saturday and affects Christchurch, Waimakariri and Hurunui. A fire ban is already in place in Selwyn.

 - The Press

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