Manage fire risk - experts
Atawhai and St Arnaud communities have heeded a call to be better prepared against the threat of wildfire, with strong turnouts to public meetings last week.
Visiting United States specialist Michele Steinberg, who spoke at the meetings organised by the Waimea Rural Fire Authority with input from the Department of Conservation, said it was evident that homeowners in the region enhanced risks to their properties by how they landscaped, or by their proximity to gorse, pine and dry woodland.
The rural fire authority said north Nelson and Atawhai presented the second-highest urban-rural interface safety risk within the Waimea rural fire district.
St Arnaud's close proximity to woodlands has also placed it at high risk from wildfires.
Ms Steinberg said landscaping was an important tool in reducing risks from wildfires.
"All this has a lot to do with how we live in the landscape. People here have knowledge of the risks but the main concern I heard from people in Atawhai was concern over neighbouring vegetation such as gorse," said Ms Steinberg, who heads a wildland fire operations division of the US National Fire Protection Association.
The Boston-based Firewise Communities manager was guest speaker at the recent Forest and Rural Fire Association of New Zealand conference.
The rural fire authority, which is obliged to educate the public in order to encourage communities to manage risks relevant to their circumstances, was keen to use her expertise to advance the FireSmart campaign in Nelson.
Ms Steinberg noticed how homeowners here heightened risks to their properties through the use of ornamental vegetation. Landscaping using native species was always a better option, such as less flammable flaxes and broadleaf plants, she said.
DOC area manager Martin Rodd, who attended workshops in South Africa on wildfires, and noticed similarities between communities there and in Nelson, said a key question from the meetings was the meaning of "defensible space".
It did not mean removing vegetation but managing it by removing "ladder fuels" such as dried plant material beneath stands of trees, Mr Rodd said.
"I came away from workshops in South Africa knowing we needed to focus on this seriously. We could have the same kind of disaster as those we've seen overseas.
"Until people have seen a wildfire it's hard to explain how dangerous they are."
A recent Nelson City Council report said several major fires on the Atawhai hills in the past 20 years had resulted in near misses for several properties.
Waimea Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Ian Reade said the area with the greatest risk of wildfires was around Marahau and Sandy Bay, which the community had acknowledged by putting in place risk reduction and response plans.
Another point raised at the Atawhai meeting was concern over rights-of-way serving multiple properties that were not being maintained properly, allowing trees and shrubs to grow over them, Mr Reade said. "If you don't have a four by four metre accessway a fire appliance won't be able to get to your house."
Similar concern was expressed over the poor standard of culvert bridges to many properties, which would not take the weight of a fire appliance, he said.
Ms Steinberg said many people in rural areas had to factor in the time it would take for the fire service to arrive at their property, if they were able to get there at all.
The Tasman District Council recently updated regulations aimed at managing the fire risk for rural properties after a fire in Riwaka earlier this year that destroyed two houses showed that saving time was paramount.
A New Zealand Fire Service report to the district council says rural residents face a greater chance of losing more property from fire than urban areas. Mr Reade said the issue was about fire management, not fire control.
Two characteristics that fuel big vegetation fires are steep hillsides and strong winds.
The best way to protect your home is to “starve” a vegetation fire as it approaches. That means removing as much flammable material as possible in a "defensible area" of up to 20 metres around your house. The defensible space will not only reduce the possibility of flames reaching your house, but will also provide access for firefighters.
To make a defensible space, an area of 20m from the walls of your house should have:
- Minimal amounts of flammable vegetation.
- No dead vegetation or other flammable debris.
- Green plants during the fire season.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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