Helping Future Victims of Rural Fire

24 January 2007

Helping rural communities recover from wildfires is the aim of a study into a significant fire in Canterbury that occurred three years ago.

Laura Kelly, an anthropology student at the University of Canterbury, is researching the West Melton fire, which occurred on the western outskirts of Christchurch in December 2003. Her study is part of the Ensis Bushfire Research Group - a team of researchers who study how fires behave in New Zealand and Australian environments and develop tools to support fire management.

“The West Melton fire caused a lot of damage in the area. It destroyed a house, outbuildings, machinery, forest blocks and much more. It swept across 150 hectares and impacted on everyone in the local community,” she says.

Ms Kelly is currently interviewing 20 West Melton families for her Master’s thesis to learn more about their experiences, their preparation for fire before and after, their recovery, and the impact it had on their lives.

“For many West Melton residents, fire wasn’t something they had previously considered. So how things have changed since 2003 in terms of their preparation will be of particular interest. We hope the community can provide some valuable insights for helping others prepare and recover from future fires, thereby minimising their impacts.”

As well as interviewing families, Ms Kelly is also talking to the Selwyn District Council, West Melton Community Board and the West Melton Volunteer Rural Fire Force. Through its participation in this study, the Selwyn District Council supports the aims of the social research and acknowledges that wildfire management is much more complex than it used to be as land use is more varied and there are more people living on the urban fringe.

Ensis scientist, Lisa Langer, is one of Ms Kelly’s supervisors and a key member of the Ensis Bushfire Research Programme, based in Christchurch.

She says the aim of the social component of the research programme is to develop best-practice guidelines that will lessen the social impact on communities and improve recovery after wildfires.

“In the past, New Zealand fire research has concentrated on describing how the physical environment – for example fuels, weather, and topography - affects where fires are most likely to start, how they will burn, and how they can be best managed or put out. But we are bringing in a new dimension to look at how communities can recover and be resilient to fires. Our aim is to learn lessons from past fires in order to derive guidelines for future management.

“It’s about lessening the impact of fires and giving people the tools to recover from a fire as quickly as possible and be better prepared for potential future fire events,” she says.

The West Melton community is of particular interest to the Ensis team because it is a mix of people living on both large and small properties in the rural/urban interface.