About 70 firefighters battle largest blaze on North Island’s east coast while power outages hit thousands of people on both islands
Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin – The Guardian
The Auckland sky is darkened from smoke travelling from Australia, where more than 150 New Zealand firefighters are stationed to help battle blazes there. Several fires are also burning on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Bushfire season has begun in New Zealand with hundreds of hectares of forest going up in flames at half a dozen separate blazes on the east coast of the North Island.
Seven helicopters and two planes are working to combat the largest blaze, in the Waipatiki forest outside of Napier, with about 70 firefighters on the ground, Fire and Emergency said.
Strong winds are exacerbating risky conditions, with thousands around the country also losing power due to damaged lines.
Campers in some parts of Hawke’s Bay have been warned to prepare for an evacuation if windy conditions persist through Tuesday.
Fire and Emergency said it was “confident” it had enough resources to battle the blazes, despite more than 150 New Zealand firefighters being stationed in Australia to face the unprecedented fire crisis there.
On New Year’s Day the lower half of the South Island was smothered in a thick layer of smoke from Australia, which saw the sky turn orange and visibility significantly reduced, as mountain ranges disappeared under a smoky grey fog, described as “apocalyptic” by locals.
Later in the week the smoke cloud moved further north, turning skies above Auckland vibrant orange, and the sun red.
Although New Zealand has a much lower fire risk than Australia, research has shown the fire season in New Zealand could become longer and more intense due to climate change, with the frequency of high fire-risk days potentially doubling or tripling.
Last year a number of places in New Zealand experienced their hottest year on record, including the Chatham Islands, Blenheim, Dunedin, Rotorua and Invercargill.
In early 2019 a huge bushfire in Nelson spread to 2,000ha of land and caused 700 people to flee, while in 2017 the Port Hills fire destroyed nine houses and led to the death of one person.
The rising scale of summer fires in New Zealand has led to fears the country is becoming more “flammable”.
George Perry, professor of environmental science at the University of Auckland, said that on average 4,000ha of land was burned in the country each year, with the average fire size being less than four hectares. The country’s vegetation was not highly flammable, as Australia’s eucalyptus trees were, but hotter and longer summers due to climate change were making the country more likely to ignite.
“There’s a high risk that what we end up with is a more flammable landscape that is more vulnerable to fire,” said Perry, who added that Kiwis would need to adapt in order to protect themselves and their properties from future blazes.
“I would say most people in New Zealand are not prepared at all [for fire],” he said. “People are very prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic activity, but I don’t think most people would have thought about fire as a threat. People have always seen it as something that happens in Australia or California or parts of the Mediterranean basin and not something we need to worry about so much.
“[But] if you look at the average over the last 30 years, [these recent fires] are very large … they are very significant, especially because the vegetation here has not really adapted to fire at all.”
According to Niwa’s fire weather map, most of New Zealand is experiencing a low to moderate risk of fire as temperatures remain low in most parts of the country. But in the Hawke’s Bay region the risk has increased to “very high”.