Lighting fires for science

19 February 2020

Hectares of mature gorse in the Rakaia Gorge are scheduled to go up in flames between 1-15 March to support research into rural fire science.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand and Scion fire scientists working with the Department of Conservation have earmarked around 80 ha of gorse off Double Hill Run Road for the burns.

Senior fire scientist Grant Pearce knows that it seems odd to be lighting fires when the country is so dry and with the Australian bushfires fresh in people’s mind.

“Our goal is to gather information on how fire spreads through different vegetation fuels to develop improved fire behaviour models and prediction tools for rural fire managers.

“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. We plan to carry out the burns over five to six days, depending on the weather,” says Grant. “At the most, we will do two burns in one day.”

A year’s preparation working with Fire and Emergency New Zealand, DOC and Environment Canterbury means all the permits and approvals are in place. Work preparing the six plots to be burnt has seen the site mapped in detail, firebreaks bulldozed on site and buffer areas that will be burnt out ahead of the main burns. Fire experts are coming from around the world to record and observe the research burns.

“We have also been talking to all the neighbouring property owners and they have made visits to the site to see the location for themselves and safety measures that are in place, as well as letting local communities know what is going on.”

Fires will only be lit under the weather conditions specified in the fire permit, and with the prior approval of FENZ. Firefighters and equipment will be on site the whole time, and a helicopter will be on standby. In addition, a traffic management plan will be in place for the road adjacent to the burn area.

“As our climate changes and extreme fire conditions become more common, our research findings will hopefully help prevent loss of life, property and our native vegetation and wildlife.

Rural wild fires can be devastating. Every year in New Zealand around 3,000 wildfires burn some 6,000 hectares of lands costing New Zealand more than $100 million per year. And this is just the direct costs of the firefighting response and immediate damage to property. It doesn’t include the indirect losses associated with damage to rural lands or conservation resources, and personal property and lives, which can be many times greater.

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Find out more about Scion’s fire research [YouTube]