Canterbury’s Port Hills fire: Climate change will cause more complex fires

The Port Hills fires last year. PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER

It’s been one year since a fire ripped through Canterbury’s Port Hills – taking 66 days to fully extinguish – but fires of that scale are only going to become more common, says Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ).

The blaze saw 300 firefighters and a number of helicopters try to battle it over an area as big as 1600 rugby fields on February 13, 2017.

FENZ rural regional manager Richard McNamara says with the climate changing and the weather becoming more extreme, fires that have the complexity of the Port Hills fire will be seen more often.

The number of vegetation fires in Canterbury has jumped 25 per cent compared to the previous year – crews responded to more than 1000 vegetation fires in December alone.

“This season has been busy and is a result of extremely dry conditions in December and
“We are seeing changes in our climate, an increase in severe weather events and are experiencing them right now, with a cyclone in Tonga, flooding on the country’s West Coast and fires in Canterbury recently.”

NIWA hydrologist Dr Daniel Collins says we’ve seen an upwards trend in the temperatures in the last century and it will continue – January was the warmest month ever recorded in New Zealand.

“New Zealand has warmed 1C in the past century – this is partly because of fossil fuels burning and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Fire and Emergency NZ believe the Port Hills fire – which originally began as two separate fires – was deliberately lit, however, no one has been charged over the matter and it remains in the hands of the police.

The findings of an independent review into the blaze, led by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council’s Alan Goodwin, was released late last year.

The review found that poor co-operation between fire agencies led to confusion as the Port Hills fires raged out of control, the review has found.

“There was confusion, compounded by the darkness, amongst those involved on the fire ground from all responding agencies as to what information had been given to the public and in a command and control process back to those in management positions,” Mr Goodwin said.

The command structure has changed since the Port Hills fire, it was noted, with the merging of fire agencies to become Fire and Emergency NZ.

Mr McNamara says the biggest difference since FENZ was formed is that they can now have assets, such as helicopters, on standby and can respond within minutes.

The fire destroyed nine homes along its path and claimed the life of helicopter pilot Steve Askin in a crash while fighting the flames.

-NZ Herald