16 Jan 2020

Fire and Emergency NZ urges fire risk reduction for councils, residents

1:30 pm on 16 January 2020

New Zealand firefighters are preparing for the growing risks posed by climate change, Fire and Emergency's chief executive says, but there are also steps the public can take.

NZ firefighters in Australia

New Zealand firefighters have been helping fight the massive blazes in Australia. Photo: Supplied / Fire and Emergency

Bushfires have ravaged Australia this year, leaving at least 27 people dead and several thousand homes destroyed as temperature records tumbled across the country.

The scale of the bushfires has been called unprecedented, burning terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged by 2019 fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined, across a record land area for New South Wales, with the fire season starting earlier than usual.

The greater severity and scale has been linked to climate change, with the country's Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitting it was a factor.

Fire and Emergency has deployed New Zealand firefighters to join the efforts to fight the fires across the Tasman, but its chief executive Rhys Jones said work was also being done to prepare for the greater risks posed in Aotearoa.

He told RNZ's Summer Report while climate change was not new, its effects could now be seen in full force.

"No matter how well a country can prepare - and Australia certainly has been globally one of the most prepared for wildfires of any country in the world - climate change is dramatically changing the game and even well prepared countries may be overwhelmed by the circumstances.

"They're not even able to, I suppose, guarantee when this is going to stop because it has just been totally unprecedented, started well before the normal fire seasons, likely to go well after the normal fire seasons."

He said Fire and Emergency was making preparations for more severe weather conditions in New Zealand too.

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones Photo: RNZ / Meriana Johnsen

"As an organisation, Fire and Emergency has always realised that the environment is changing and that the risks to the New Zelanad public are different to where they were before. We need to be thinking differently," he said.

New Zealand's climate was expected to change in different ways to Australia, he said, but that meant preparing for more tropical storms as well as wildfires.

"New Zealand is fortunate - being a smaller country surrounded by ocean we're not going to have the same dramatic effects that Australia does have.

"It brings drier air on the east coast of New Zealand and therefore the likelihood of widlfires, but warmer air also can carry more moisture so we're also going to see the tropical storms coming further south so weather damage - storm damage - is also gonna be on our agenda as well."

He said New Zealanders needed more social awareness of the risks wildfires posed, and how to mitigate them.

"In the same way that we've all grown up with knowing what to do in an earthquake; we're now starting to know what to do in a tsunami; we also need to be aware as a people, as a country, as a population how do you keep yourself safe from wildfire.

"The first step is to make everyone in New Zealand aware that it isn't going away and they're not one-off activities. This is going to be a trend into the future."

"You can't rely on Fire and Emergency to be the cavalry that comes over the hill to deal with the fire, there also has to be a responsibility of individuals but also regional councils in taking responsibility to reduce the risk in the first place."

He said there was a lot individual people could do to reduce the risks.

"Do you have a defendable zone around your house ... things like don't stack firewood outside your house," he said.

"New Zealanders would dream of having a nice tree-lined driveway that comes up to your house - but if you do that, make sure that you have another way out because if that tree-lined driveway's on fire there's no way that you can get out or fire appliances can come in."

He said Fire and Emergency had education programmes to help people become more aware of how to reduce the risk of wildfires, and was also working with councils to improve systems.

"So that councils are more aware of zoning requirements, consent requirements, building codes. Again it should be in future built into our knowledge as a people in this country about what do we do to reduce the risk."

Those wanting to learn more about fire risk managment and what they can do to help can visit fireandemergency.nz.

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