Fire research burns underway in the Rakaia Gorge

For immediate release
3 March 2020

Experimental burns of mature gorse are occurring in the Rakaia Gorge to advance research into rural fire science. Scion are working alongside Fire and Emergency New Zealand and the Department of Conservation to conduct the burns, which started on 2 March.

A further three burn days planned between 3 to 15 March, depending on weather conditions. Fire crews will be on site alongside a Fire and Emergency New Zealand-led incident management team.

Scion senior fire scientist Grant Pearce says the experimental burns will provide data that can be used to develop improved fire behaviour models and prediction tools for rural fire managers.

“It’s a bit odd to be lighting fires when the country is so dry, but the best way to learn more about fire behaviour and flame spread mechanisms is to study actual fires in conditions as close to real life as possible,” says Grant.

“Data on how fast and intense fire can be in heavy gorse, and a chance to look at smoke behaviour, will help us understand how fire behaves in scrub fuel types. In turn, this information will help rural fire and emergency response agencies to prevent fires from occurring and to respond to wildfires that do occur more quickly and safely.”

The work is also part of testing a new theory on the way fire spreads. It will add to international understanding of fire ignition, spread and how extreme fires, such as those seen recently in Australia, develop.

Tim Mitchell, Manager Rural Fire, Fire and Emergency says, “The current extremely dry conditions in many parts of the country show how very real the wildfire risk is New Zealand. With climate change and urban spread into scrub fire risk areas, it is likely the risk will increase. The research project being conducted by Scion is valuable as it will improve our current wildfire prediction tools and our understanding of wildfire behaviour.

Department of Conservation Threats Technical Advisor and fire scientist Brendon Christensen said wildfires are a significant danger to our native ecosystems and wildlife, and also for our fire-fighting personnel.

“What has taken thousands of years to evolve can be wiped out in minutes. Even where species initially survive fires they face habitat disruption, loss of food sources and increased vulnerability to predators, and competition from invasive weed species.”

Being able to model future fire behaviour will allow for improved management responses, fewer losses and increased safety of our fire-fighting personnel when these fires occur.

Grant says Scion’s fire research team is trained and experienced in undertaking burn experiments and has conducted over 140 similar burns in different vegetation types over the past 25 years.

Scion’s Rural Fire Research Team is based in Christchurch and carries out research on fire in New Zealand's forests and rural landscapes. The team focuses on understanding how fires are likely to behave in different weather conditions, terrain and fuel types, and the factors affecting public and firefighter safety that are essential to fire management and prevention. See