Raging bushfires are – thankfully – not common in New Zealand. But with more extremes in weather patterns forecast, and in particular drought conditions over the summer months, out-of-control fires that threaten rural properties are on the increase.
High temperatures, low rainfall and high winds across many parts of the country are the perfect recipe for fires, and as John Rasmussen of the National Rural Fire Authority says, it’s best to be prepared ahead of time.
The major fires in Canterbury over recent years, he says, were a massive wake-up call to many, including the fire service itself.
Among those caught in the chaos of the Prebbleton area fire, which broke out on January 10, 2013, was show jump rider Jacquie Crutchley – the flames came within 1m of her home.
When the fire broke out, Jacquie was working in nearby Lincoln. From there, she could see a huge smoke plume rising in the north. After a panicky phone call from her mother, Jacquie headed for the Robinsons Rd property where her competition horses, Hot Chocolate II and Vesper, were grazing, along with her broodmare and yearling.
Driving through the police cordon into the smoke, Jacquie says, the scene awaiting her was “crazy”. “People were starting to panic. There was a lot of fence-cutting going on, and horses all over the place.”
Her immediate dilemma – with just a two-horse float she had to make the horrendous choice of which of her horses she’d take to safety, and which she’d leave to fend for themselves. In the end, she loaded the jumpers before leading the mare and youngster to the westernmost paddock on the farm; the fire looked to be heading east.
Jacquie said it was agonising driving off and leaving them, though they were unharmed by the experience.
Nearby, staff at racing stable Courtco had to think and act fast to evacuate 24 horses from the blaze, including some very valuable Hong Kong-owned thoroughbreds. Stable foreman Annabel Pilson says when she saw the oncoming flames, she phoned everyone she knew in the area with a float to come and help get the horses to safety.
The smoke was so thick she could barely see a few metres in front of her as she scrambled to get them out of the barn. When she returned to collect the last four horses, the police had cordoned off the road because the fire had engulfed the hedge along the front of the property.
She was forced to wait on the road while the staff inside protected the remaining four horses; two of them were put into a back paddock and two, including top pacer Franco Emirate, were put in the water walker – all emerging unscathed.
Annabel believes the eight hectare property was saved by the sand training track. “The fire was coming in from all angles and when it was running along the ground it was broken up by the tracks,” she said.
Courtco owner Brian Court was in Australia at the time of the fire, boarding the first flight home to be escorted on to his charred property by police. His losses included 2000 bales of hay, trees and fences, and he was well aware it could have been much worse.
“We could see that we had been extremely fortunate. Basically, our place would have been toast without the monsoon buckets, staff and friends. Without them we wouldn’t have anything,” he told The Press newspaper.
Just 24 hours later, Canterbury firefighters were fighting the first of three blazes in 12 days across West Melton, which also damaged equestrian property.
Eventer Kate Cavanagh was away schooling as fire threatened her place. “We had heard there was a fire but we didn’t know how close it was. We couldn’t even see smoke when we left the Selwyn Equestrian Centre, but by the time we got home we could hardly see. Already there were people there waiting to help. It was amazing, people just rallied around to help.”
Kate had 15 horses on the property at the time, many of whom were there for training and agistment; all had been safely removed within 40 minutes, as well as everything important from the house and tack room.
Kate headed off the following weekend to a competition, but left a solid plan in place in case of further fires. She moved all the horses closer to the house, where the grass had been keep short and well irrigated, and left clear instructions for an evacuation plan.
“If you know you have time, then you can remove them by truck or float, but if there is no time, you’d have to just let the horses go,” says Kate. “It certainly makes you think. If it’s going to happen again, next time I might not be so lucky.”
It also made her reconsider insurance, and ponder the legalities around clients’ horses who may be on the property at the time.
Don’t wait for help
It’s a common misconception that fire crews will be on the scene of every fire within minutes; in reality that’s impossible. Fire crews can’t be everywhere at once, as John Rasmussen of the National Rural Fire Authority points out.
“In some emergencies, the fire trucks will be too late. You have to be able to help youself. It’s not the firefighters’ job to come and save your animals if you don’t plan ahead. Our primary focus is to save lives, stop the fire and save property.”
John advises rural property owners to think carefully about their own capabilities of actively defending their place from a fire, as well as coming up with a plan for the worst-case scenario. This may mean evacuating horses to another property, or putting them in a ‘safe’ area, which should be as large as possible with good water. It could be a closely grazed or irrigated paddock. In some cases, an arena can be used.
John says if fire is threatening your property, you need to act quickly and decisively. Don’t dither or panic. Fill every available bucket and trough with water, turn off the power and disconnect electric fences, remove all rugs and halters from your horses (as rugs burn, synthetic halters melt and buckles will get hot), shut all doors to the stables to prevent horses from running into buildings, and put your horses in the ‘safe’ area.
Turning horses loose on the road is not advised. “Letting them go is potentially creating a hazard to other people and traffic,” says John.
Rural property owners face a higher risk from fire than their townie cousins, and the consequences are greater because fires are generally detected later and help takes longer to arrive.
So, people living rurally need to have a higher level of fire safety awareness, and take extra precautions, especially in the dry season, says John.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to help reduce the fire risk to your property. The most important one is removing the amount of dry fuel available. Remove dead branches, twigs and leaves in existing vegetation, keep lawns and paddocks short – and, ideally, irrigated – and consider removing fire-prone species of trees, such as conifers, from the areas immediately around your home and outbuildings.
Fire-smart landscaping is a sensible step to take. The first 10m circumference around your house and barn should include only low-growing, fire-resistant plants and rocks, stone pathways and drives (hardscape). Plants should always be irrigated to keep them green. Keep them well-pruned and remove dead material and leaf debris. Mow grass. Avoid conifers which can easily ignite. Ground covers are good because they produce little or no flame when ignited and don’t require much water.
The next 10-20m can include shrubs, but these should be well spaced out. Keep the volume of material down by mowing tall grass and pruning trees and shrubs. This area should also be irrigated to keep it green.
The next 20-30m can contain trees, but to reduce the fire risk, thin or prune branches and remove lower limbs 2-3m off the ground to reduce the risk of fire leaping from grass to lower tree limbs. Avoid species that have a high resin content, low moisture and tall growth with lots of branches, cones and other leaf debris.
Fire-retardant plants don’t burn easily. When used in plantings around houses or in shelter belts, they can slow the spread of a fire, reduce and block heat, and lessen the risk of secondary fires by trapping wind-blown embers. Look for species that are high in moisture content, have a high salt content, low volatile oil content, broad and fleshy leaves and smooth bark.
Good examples of fire-retardant New Zealand natives include taupata (Coprosma repens), cabbage tree/ti kouka (Cordyline australis), ngaio (Myoporum laetum), tree fuchsia/kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata) and koromiko (Hebe salicifolia, South Island, and H. stricta, North Island).
Exotic plants which are known for their fire resistance include elms (Ulmus sp.), oaks (Quercus sp.) olives (Olea Europa), fruit trees, and the entire rose family. Rhododendron and photinia also have their places in a fire-safe garden.
Check with a garden centre or tree nursery as to what fire-resistant options might work best on your property.
Anybody living or doing activities in a rural area needs to be aware that if you start a fire that gets out of control (regardless of whether you have taken all the necessary precautions), you will be held accountable for the cost of putting it out and any damage caused, explains John.
Obviously, you need insurance for your own property (covering the house and outbuildings, as well as vehicles, plant and machinery, including crops). But you also need public liability insurance to cover the cost of damage and loss to a third party from anything (including fire) that escapes from your property and damages another party’s property. Finally, Forest and Rural Fires Act fire suppression insurance covers the costs of fire suppression from a fire caused by you or started on your property. If in doubt, check with your own insurance company.
In 2012, a Nelson couple was sued $1.2 million for starting a fire that destroyed a house and ripped through a forest near the city in 2009.
“It sounds pretty harsh, but that’s how it operates. Costs need to be recouped,” says John.
Tips for reducing your fire risk
- Install smoke alarms in your home and stable complex and test regularly
- Prepare an escape plan
- Keep grass green and mown or grazed around your home and stables
- Clear any dead or dry material from around buildings (up to 30m), and clean gutters and roof surfaces regularly
- Replace flammable plants and trees for naturally fire-retardant species
- Ensure your property is clearly signposted with your RAPID (rural property identification number) number
- Install multipurpose dry powder extinguishers in your home and outbuildings
- Keep hoses connected and make sure they are long enough to reach around the house and stable
- Store hay, straw, shavings, firewood and other flammable material safely away from important buildings
- Remove trees and overhanging tree limbs that are close to power lines
- Don’t start a fire you can’t put out, and dispose of all ash safely
- Never leave any fire unattended
To find out the current fire season and danger level for your area, call your local Rural Fire Authority or visit www.nrfa.org.nz