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Fire fighters from Wellington heading to Chathams

30 November 2007

Fire fighters from Wellington heading to Chathams

Fire fighters from Wellington are en route to the Chatham Islands to help quell a blaze in a protected peat swamp.

Ten Department of Conservation fire fighters from around the Wellington region, and one from Wellington International Airport flew out from Wellington on an Air Chathams flight today. They were expected to arrive around 3pm (New Zealand time) and will join crews from DOC’s Chatham Area Office and the Chatham Islands Volunteer Fire Brigade.

A Helipro BK117 twin engine helicopter and crew with monsoon bucket is flying to the Chathams from Palmerston North this afternoon to assist with the fire fighting effort. Fitted with a long range fuel tank, it is expected to arrive on the Chathams at around 6pm (New Zealand time).

Four specialist peat firefighters from DOC in Northland are on standby.

By midday today the fire had burned around 75 hectares of the 422.9 ha Wharekauri (Greenswamp) Conservation Area in the northern Chatham Islands.

DOC Chathams Area manager Ken Hunt said the fire had broken into three flanks (fronts).

“The eastern front is particularly vigorous and is the one that we are concentrating on.”

The fire has moved closer to a creek which is providing a source of water to fight the fire. Tractors and rotary hoes have been used to create fire breaks which have proved effective for the smaller fire fronts.

The fire is burning in a south westerly direction on most flanks of the conservation area. Fire fighters are managing to hold the western front which has encroached onto adjacent farmland. No structures are at risk. The cause of the fire remains unknown at this stage.

The Wharekauri (Greenswamp) Conservation Convenant is one of New Zealand’s best examples of peat swamp, comprising several species of plants that are unique to the Chathams including Chatham Island bamboo rush Sporodanthus traversii, Chatham Island swamp aster Olearia semidentata, and the endemic turpentine tree Dracophyllum scoparium.

DOC ecologist John Sawyer said there is a risk of exotic weeds colonising the area after the fire, which if it burned intensely, could destroy the native seed bank, leading to problems with future regeneration of the native endemic plants.

“Dracophyllum scoparium (which contains substances which can be explosive when heated) will be burnt completely and will be slow to recover,” he said.

“The Olearia semidentata will also be destroyed. If small islands of vegetation survive the fire, then species of rushes and fern and Dracophyllum may regenerate almost immediately.

“Assuming that the ground remains moist, the Chatham endemic plant Sporodanthus traversii should benefit from the fire. It has a big woody nut that will germinate only when cracked and may be fire adapted. It may be more abundant on the Chathams now than before because of past fires.

“After the fire we can expect an influx of gentians and Libertia. Utricularia delicatula (bladderwort), liverworts, mosses and orchids and the sundew species of Drosera will also be expected to recolonise quickly after the fire.

“The major problem would be if willows (Salix), Cotoneaster and most especially Ugni molinae (Chilean guava) were dispersed by birds into the burnt area after the fire,” Mr Sawyer said.

“These are serious weeds and may deflect the natural vegetation succession. It will be vital after the fire to control the establishment and spread of exotic weeds into the burnt area.”


Fact sheets about some of the affected native species:

Dracophyllum: http://www.nzpcn.org.nz/vascular_plants/detail.asp?PlantID=1862
Sporodanthus http://www.nzpcn.org.nz/nz_threatenedplants/detail.asp?PlantID=702
Olearia: http://www.nzpcn.org.nz/vascular_plants/detail.asp?PlantID=619

Find out more about the Chatham Islands on the DOC website: http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/defaultlanding.aspx?id=32257

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