Port Hills Wildfire Special journal issue

Scion scientists have made a significant contribution to the latest issue of Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, which focuses on the February 2017 Port Hills fire.

Social scientist Lisa Langer was a guest editor and author of a paper with social research colleague, Simon Wegner. Fire scientist Grant Pearce also has research in the issue.

The fire was one of the biggest in New Zealand’s recent history and met the criteria for an ‘extreme’ fire – spreading rapidly, behaving unpredictably and unable to be suppressed by conventional methods. It also threatened Christchurch, the country’s second largest city, affecting people living on small lifestyle properties as well as denser urban areas on the fringe of the city within the rural-urban interface.

Grant wrote about the fire’s unusual behaviour, its rapid transition into an extreme fire and what this could mean for New Zealand’s potential wildfire future. With climate change likely to bring more and larger fires, combined with more people moving into areas of flammable vegetation in the rural-urban interface, the potential for wildfire to affect lives and property is increasing. 

Lisa and Simon analysed media reports and social media comments to gain an indication of how urban residents perceived the fire risk, the social norms that shaped discussion, underlying conflicts and their understanding of where the responsibility for action lies. The responses suggest that fire managers need to extend their focus on lifestyle property residents within rural-urban interface areas to urban audiences on the margins of urban area to awaken these residents to the increasing risks of wildfires and how to prepare for them, as they can also be effected. Other papers in the issue address the importance of urban planning to manage wildfire risk; urban planning at the edges of New Zealand cities and how this may have played a role in the 2017 fires; whether or not the fires were deliberately lit; and the importance of considering animal welfare.

The rural-urban interface fire problem was a central theme of the publication, but this issue is not new. Raising the profile of wildfire as a natural hazard in New Zealand, and applying known solutions for mitigating rural-urban interface fire risk, can reduce the impacts of future wildfires on the edges of our towns and cities. Action to increase awareness of wildfire risk amongst homeowners and planning agencies is needed now. 

View the Port Hills Wildfire Special Issue.

Lisa and Simon’s research was supported by the Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge, and Grant’s through the MBIE-funded ‘Preparing NZ for Extreme Fire’ programme. 

Image: Ross Younger www.flickr.com/photos/crazyscot/32759624452