Drought conditions spark Coast fire fears

A Kiwi firefighter battles through the night in New South Wales. Photo, Kawau Island chief fire officer Gavin Brunton.

With a total fire ban put in place for Auckland and North Waikato last week, and the National Insititute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) saying the region is in a “meteoroligical drought”, local firefighters are on high alert, according to Manly chief fire officer Shayne Kennedy.

He says on January 27, the day before the fire ban came into force, firefighters attended a fire that had been lit on Stanmore Bay beach. Fires on beaches are not permitted by Auckland Council at any time, and it’s a particularly high risk activity given the dryness of nearby reserves.

Mr Kennedy says it’s going to be very dry for the next couple of months and firefighters want the public to be aware that the risk of fire is high.

He is particularly worried about rural areas such as Dairy Flat, Wainui, Stillwater and Puhoi and also parts of Whangaparaoa where there is a lot of bush and vegetation such as Shakespear Regional Park, and the end of Scott Road in Stanmore Bay.

As anyone who relies on tankwater on the peninsula will tell you, this summer has so far been a dry one. This is borne out by measurements of rainfall from the MetService station in Whangaparaoa.

MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris says rainfall data for Whangaparaoa show it has been very dry, with just four days of rain, totalling 6.6mm, last month – 90 percent lower than the average January rainfall of 66mm. This makes January 2020 the second driest since records began. It has also been windier than average.

NIWA meteorologists say that nearly all of the Auckland region has been experiencing “meteorological drought conditions”, since late January. This status takes into account things such as rain and soil moisture levels.

NIWA’s fireweather map also indicates that the majority of the North Island is currently at extreme risk of fires, with more hot dry weather to come.

NIWA meteorologist Maria Augutis says the general pattern for the region is for a warming trend to continue through early February, with above average temperatures. “There may be some showers, but rainfall and soil moisture levels are still below average for the time of year,” she says.

Recently, the Coast has had several hot days – the highest temperature recorded in Whangaparaoa in January was 28.9°C – the average maximum for that month is 23.3°C.

“Remember this is a total fire ban – urban and rural,” Mr Kennedy says. “The consequences of an out of control fire could live with you for a long time.”

Total fire ban rules
The name ‘total fire ban’ speaks for itself. However, Auckland Council’s Outdoor Fire Safety bylaw sets out the rules for a total fire ban, which is put in place to minimise the risk of fire during periods of extreme fire hazard.

A person must not light, or allow to be lit, any outdoor fire where a total fire ban is in place, unless that fire is: (a) in an urban area and contained within an outdoor fire device that: (i) is fuelled by gas; or (ii) contains all embers and sparks and used on private land; or (b) in a rural area and is not a fire in the open air. 

A person may apply to the council for an approval to light an outdoor fire during a total fire ban, if the outdoor fire is: (a) required as part of a significant community or cultural event; or (b) the most effective means to reduce a fire hazard; or (c) the most effective means to reduce any other hazard to life, health, property or the environment.

Info: Auckland Council and Fire and Emergency have details on their websites.

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