Summer fire season is under way
The Lake hau bushfire is a wake- up call for those who think the country’s exposure to environmental disasters is limited.
Flames from an intense fire swept through foothills and into the small South Island village, forcing 90 people to evacuate. It is thought to be the largest bushfire in the country for more than 60 years.
About 50 homes and 4600ha were destroyed, although thankfully no one was killed. Local officials have blamed land management practices.
North Otago Federated Farmers high country chairman Simon Williamson, a farm owner between
marama and Twizel, said the fire was fuelled by retired land — a “huge risk” that had not been addressed.
“All this ground that’s been locked up and hasn’t been grazed is becoming a hazard to life. The fuel loading in the land is just huge.
“People are saying they want to lock everything up and create a safe habitat, but you’re not locking it up when it’s not being grazed or managed . . . you get one spark and it spreads and burns everything in sight.”
Climate scientist Dr Jim Salinger said the fire reflected warnings that the climate crisis would cause “more severe” fire danger. He said Otago’s fire season was starting earlier.
“These are not spring temperatures, these are summer temperatures.”
Scientists have said for years that people should expect longer and hotter summers because of the warming climate, making bushfires more likely.
University of Auckland environmental science expert Professor George Perry said there had been more large bushfires than usual in recent years. “We would expect more such events under climate change, especially as conditions become warmer and drier, and we see more droughts.”
University of Otago Centre for Sustainability deputy director Caroline Orchiston said fire had to be considered in safety planning.
The pictures of charred and ruined houses were more akin to the scenes we are used to seeing from intense and tragic fires in Australia and California.
Just this week, stunning data emerged from the United States about California’s record- breaking blazes.
More than 1.6 million ha have been burned to date, with one fire alone scorching 404,600ha. Five of the 10 biggest bushfires in the state’s history have occurred since August.
Australia will be dreading another fire season after the apocalyptic scenes from the start of this year.
September was the warmest month on record globally, according to the weather service Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation programme. It was 0.05C hotter than September last year, which was the previous record high for the month.
With its fairly even climate, New Zealand has generally been considered less threatened by extreme heat.
Perhaps the smaller perceived
We would expect more such events under climate change, especially as conditions become warmer and drier, and we see more droughts.
threat here has made our politicians less inclined to entwine economic and environmental policies compared to countries overseas.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week outlined a “green industrial revolution” including plans to power every home in the UK with offshore wind energy within a decade.
Like other leaders, including US Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, Johnson is pledging to use the coronavirus pandemic as a driver for “green”- based jobs and economic growth.
Specific plans — such as more wind turbines, solar projects, specific transport changes, or more chargers to encourage electric vehicle take- up — carry more impact than policy goals that sound like they might never arrive.
At a time of public impatience — especially among younger people — with the slowness of progress on climate issues, tight targets that can be part of an economic recovery and can be easily explained make political sense.
Fires, droughts, water supplies, power, energy- efficient housing and transportation will be important areas of focus for this country from now on.