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Fire and Emergency NZ marks a year on from Port Hills fires

Fire and Emergency NZ marks a year on from Port Hills fires

Today marks a year since the fires on Canterbury’s Port Hills.

The two fires that broke out on February 13 eventually merged and burnt through 1,600 hectares of land. Firefighters worked to save more than 90 homes, but nine homes were lost and five others were damaged. At its peak, the fire had 100,000 kilowatts of energy, the equivalent of up to four atom bombs, and it took 66 days to fully extinguish.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s Regional Manager Rural, Richard McNamara, says fires of such scale and complexity are likely to become more commonplace.

"The climate is changing, that’s a fact. We are getting more extreme weather, and it means bigger storms, heavier rainfall and prolonged droughts - which of course means a greater fire risk and more fires. We’ve certainly seen that this summer," he says.

The number of vegetation fires this summer has jumped 25 per cent compared to the previous year. Fire crews responded to more than 1000 vegetation or scrub fires last December alone. Overall, between November 2017 to January 2018 there were 2215 vegetation fires, up from 1749 the summer before.

Fire Region Manager Paul Henderson says since the establishment of Fire and Emergency in July last year, firefighters are more prepared to respond quickly and effectively when it comes to the rising number of fires and weather related callouts.

"Our urban and rural firefighters are training together and with partner organisations on a regular basis. We are trialing community based approaches to fire risk assessment and prevention, and improving how we communicate with the public during incidents."

"That’s contributed directly to our emergency response this summer. Our crews have faced a variety of incidents and have been exceptional at getting the job done on behalf of the communities we serve."

Mr McNamara says the responses to recent fires, including the Burnside fire in Dunedin and recent fires in the Selwyn District, are proof of that.

"For example with the fire at Hororata on Christmas Day, we had aircraft on call and responding within five minutes of the call," he says.

Mr McNamara says it’s important people know there is a greater risk of fires in the future, so they can be prepared.

"Previously we’ve dealt with fires bigger than the Port Hills, but they’ve been in more remote places so we’ve been able to get on top of them without having to think about the risk to life and property. But now with more urban development in rural areas, that risk is greater."

Richard McNamara says it is still Fire and Emergency’s top priority to keep people safe.

"It’s our responsibility to do our upmost to protect people’s lives, the lives of our firefighters and our responders including our pilots."

Tomorrow will mark a year since the tragic death of Steve Askin, who lost his life in a crash while he was fighting the Port Hills fires.

Mr McNamara says his thoughts are with his family.

"We grieve for Steve and his family, we have not forgotten him, he was part of the firefighting community and we think about him often."


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