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Rural Fire Research

Twenty five years ago rural fire research commenced in New Zealand. The late Peter Olsen, founder of PF Olsen and Co, was the driving force from industry to get this programme started. As well as promoting fire insurance for private forest owners, he recognised the increasing value of the New Zealand commercial forest estate and the critical need to improve the understanding of fire behaviour and the ability of rural fire authorities to prepare and respond effectively to fire threats.

With funding support from forest growers, Fire Service, DOC, Defence, local authorities and Scion, researchers have provided industry and fire authorities with valuable knowledge and tools that are now being used regularly to ensure better preparedness and more effective response when wildfire events do occur.

To celebrate and acknowledge 25 years of fire research in New Zealand, Scion, with the support of rural fire authorities, organised a two day conference in Christchurch recently.

The outcomes from the last 25 years of research are impressive. Examples are the improved understanding of the relationships between climate, weather, fuel type and terrain and the incorporation of this information into fire hazard models and a fire behaviour prediction system for New Zealand fuel types. Research learnings have been translated into practical guides (such as the “orange” field manual and Toolkit calculator) for fire managers to calculate the rate of speed of fires under different conditions and the resources required to respond effectively. These are updated regularly as research is improved and have been extended to web based and mobile phone apps to make them more accessible.

Using these tools, wildfire risk forecasts are now supplied by the Scion researchers to television weather forecasts to provide updated fire hazard information to the public. After the damaging fires in Marlborough in 2016, revised forestry fire risk triggers were developed for Marlborough where existing trigger levels appeared to understate the fire risk. These triggers are being adapted for other regions of the country.

The researchers have also introduced a software system called Prometheus from Canada and have adapted this to our conditions. This is now embedded into the fire incident command structures and has been used in recent fires in Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and most recently the Christchurch Port Hills. Rates of spread, assets at risk and evacuation requirements can all be predicted and assessed using this software and it is providing a valuable tool for fire incident control rooms to plan response efforts.

With the World Meteorological Organisation now confirming that 2011- 2015 was the hottest five year period on record, it is important that we as an industry recognise the increasing threat this will pose to our forest assets and the risk posed by extreme wildfire events. Recent fires have shown that these extreme events can occur in New Zealand and are not confined to Australia or North America. As our summers heat up and dry out we can expect more of these extreme fire events. This threat to New Zealand has been recognised recently with MBIE awarding $8.75million of research funding over 5 years to Scion to better understand what causes extreme fire behaviour and when it might happen. Forest owners are supporting this with funding from the Forest Growers Levy Trust.