17 Feb 2019

Fighting Nature's Fury - The Tasman Fires

From Insight, 8:10 am on 17 February 2019

Residents in Tasman forced out of their homes by the huge fires are trying to regain a cautious sense of normality as they settle back in. As firefighters continue work to dampen the hotspots, the focus is turning to the ongoing impact of the blaze. Alex Ashton investigates how the country can prepare better should it happen again.

Nelson fire, aerial view over Eves Valley, Pidgeon Valley and Redwood Valley.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Conditions were rife for fire to break out, as months without substantial rain had left the region tinder dry. That, teamed with the hot sun and warm winds, had locals nervous. Some said it was the driest it had been in decades.

That afternoon, all it took was a single spark from a tractor to ignite a fire which would put emergency services to the test, and force thousands from their homes.

Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi has been in and out of Tasman since the fire started. But back in Wellington, he has a chance to reflect.

"The fire could have got a whole lot worse, but for the grace of God, and the weather playing ball and some amazing efforts from defence crews - especially in the initial parts.

"After two, or three, or four days, the local [Civil Defence Management] groups start feeling the pinch, and they certainly need some assistance," he says.

Head and shoulders of Civil Defence Minister

Civil Defence Minister, Kris Faafoi, takes his hat off to the emergency crews. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

New Zealand's ability to respond to disasters has been put to the test in the last few years; first by the devastating Kaikōura earthquake in 2016, and then a year later when a 2000 hectare blaze shot across Christchurch's Port Hills.

In response, the then-National government formed a Technical Advisory Group - or TAG - to come up with better ways to manage disasters.

In August, it released its recommendations - including the development of so-called 'fly-in' teams: groups of experts, who would fly in to manage disasters.

Kris Faafoi says those 'fly-in' teams were unofficially in force in Tasman but will be brought in formally later this year.

"We had some of the team who will lead the flying teams later this year down there, to have a look at how things are running, to see how when they do start, what is best to tackle first."

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Photo: RNZ

The government is also considering a new emergency management centre, and Kris Faafoi says the Tasman fires reinforce the need to have accurate, up-to-date details for everyone.

"I think having really good information, I've learned from the small number of emergencies that we've had to deal with, is absolutely key.

"It can be a little bit frantic in the early stages when things are emerging as to what information you should get... but I think having - certainly to decision makers at central government - the right information, and coordination of other agencies, is key."

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The Tasman fire is the first major logistical test for Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

The organisation formed in 2017 in the months following the Port Hills fires, bringing together the country's 40 urban, rural, paid and volunteer fire organisations.

Kevin O'Connor from Fire and Emergency NZ says  they have a good level of support that puts them in good stead to deal with future fires.

Kevin O'Connor from Fire and Emergency NZ says they have a good level of support that puts them in good stead to deal with future fires. Photo: RNZ / Alex Ashton

The restructure was partly a means to better depict the non-fire related work of the Fire Service; but it was also to streamline the response to emergencies, something that was criticised in a review carried out in the wake of the Christchurch blaze.

Comparing the effort in Tasman to that on the Port Hills, national rural manager Kevin O'Connor says they have done a much better job this time around.

"We're certainly very busy but we're not stretched," he says, in response to being asked how resources are holding up in Tasman.

"We've got quite a standing army behind the organisation."

On top of the 2000 career firefighters, there are 12,000 volunteers ready to go as needed. The Department of Conservation has 465 trained firefighters, and the forestry industry also has staff to send as required.  

The Defence Force sent 220 staff to Tasman. They brought with them 23 military vehicles, two aircraft and two mobile kitchens - Defence Force chefs fed the hundreds of emergency workers.

Over 100 police staff were also brought to the region - including 37 officers who had only just graduated.

Red Cross worker supports fire evacuee at a road block

Volunteers helped support those affected by the Tasman fires Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Kevin O'Connor says that level of support puts them in good stead for future fires.

"If we're able to work with that catchment as well as our own current resources, I don't think we're going to have a massive need beyond that.

"Let me put it this way - if we had another two fires like were happening at the peak of Nelson... that would really stretch us."

He says if that worst-case-scenario eventuates, they will seek help from overseas.

But more fires - and more 'worst-case scenarios' - are expected, amid a changing climate.

Researchers have been warning for years that warmer temperatures will make it easier for fires to start and spread, and harder to contain them.

Men in hard hats and yellow jumpsuits with digger on firebreak alongside treesamonst

Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Fire and Emergency is well aware of the risk a changing climate presents, and is bracing itself for an increased workload in the future.

But its national rural manager Kevin O'Connor says they have many years to get ready. The change will be gradual, he says.

"We have a couple of decades to get more and more prepared."

However, he says FENZ is already starting to draw up a game plan for the future.

"We're a member of an Australasian organisation called AFAC - the Australian Fire Authorities Conference - and as a member of that we work with other agencies across Australasia that are involved in the emergency sector."

He says member countries are already developing an 'assessment tool', which he says will help them prepare for a future with more large, rural fires.

"Once that tool's more available, it will help us consider things like: What are our training needs? What leadership do we require? What are the infrastructural requirements and equipment requirements for the future?

"We'll build our organisation in that context."

Tasman fire.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Meanwhile, the government is expecting more people to ask for help as the ash settles from the fire.

"We'll start seeing the likes of farmers and businesses saying, look, this has had an effect on us - we're going to need some help," Kris Faafoi says.

"As things emerge off the back of the response, I imagine the council there will keep alerting us to issues as they start to crop up."

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