Editorial: As NZ dries, be firewise

Last updated 05:00 26/01/2013

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OPINION: It's hot at the moment, there's no question about that.

The quote down this page from MetService meteorologist Daniel Corbett confirms that a huge high pressure system building over the country has given rise to a 10-day forecast for much of New Zealand, including South Canterbury, that is just about unprecedented. Not in terms of temperature, but in terms of days on end of sunshine being predicted.

That news yesterday coincided with the announcement of a total fire ban throughout the Auckland region, a clear indication that things are dry and fire is a real danger. The serious blaze on nearby Great Barrier Island that has required so much effort this week to bring it under control is clear evidence of the acute fire danger that exists there.

Of course, Auckland's not the only area where the fire danger is about as pronounced as it could be right now. The dryness in two other parts of the country has been in sharp focus this week after fires broke out, but it's the apparent cause of those fires that has been the subject of much discussion over the last 48 hours.

In West Melton, just south of Christchurch, a fire that consumed some 50 hectares before it could be contained has been tentatively ascribed to a grenade exercise at the army's firing range there, though an investigation is still under way, with all live firing suspended.

Acting Chief of Army Brigadier Peter Kelly apologised to the West Melton community yesterday afternoon, saying the army valued its long-standing relationaship with residents of the area, where it has trained since the Second World War.

Some residents have called for the army to be prosecuted for using the range on a hot, dry day, though an army spokesperson has defended the exercise, saying training had been going on there for a week prior to the fire.

The other fire happened at Waiouru, where Singapore soldiers used ammunition in a live firing exercise, resulting in 350 hectares of bush and scrub being burnt.

So who's right? Brigadier Kelly has said preventive measures were in place in both locations, but something still went wrong. It could probably be argued that troops need to exercise with live ammunition in all conditions, given what they could face on overseas assignments.

At the same time, especially in the proximity of a community like West Melton, it certainly seems somewhat strange from a layman's perspective to go ahead with an exercise like this in such dry conditions.

Any other activity undertaken by civilians in such conditions, that resulted in an expensive blaze, would seem likely to result in charges being laid.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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