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Hot tips for fire readiness

Vivienne McLean, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2007.

With the headlines dominated by the Californian wild fires at the start of our fire season, rural fire prevention has assumed an even sharper focus than usual.

David Hammond, the NZFFA representative on the Forest Owners Association fire committee, is urging farm foresters to take a leaf out of the Australians’ book. He says Australian landowners generally have a more proactive, self-help attitude when it comes to fire preparedness, and warns against letting apathy or complacency creep in.

Knowing the basics

With parts of New Zealand – particularly in the South Island ? already experiencing drier than normal conditions, the country could be in for a long hot summer. National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA) manager, John Rasmussen says most small forest owners know the basics, and are aware of the importance of good housekeeping in their forests.

The NRFA has produced a number of excellent publications that provide clear guidelines to the well-known strategies of risk reduction, readiness, response and recovery. In particular there is the booklet Fire Management Guidelines for Small Forests and the more comprehensive FireSmart manual.

Starting at the begining

On the prevention side Rasmussen points out that the fire risk management process starts with the very first decision as to which species to plant and where. Extra care will be needed if your trees are planted on sites that are north-facing, windy, have higher temperatures and experience lower relative humidity. Sites that are hidden from public view but have good road access are also at risk from intruders burning stolen vehicles or growing cannabis.

As to species, most eucalypt lovers will be well aware of the high fire risk rating, topping the chart along with gorse for flammability. However cypress burns almost as well and are a higher risk than radiata pine, which itself rates as above average in turns of risk.

Douglas fir is slightly below average when it comes to burnability, as is blackwood.


Reducing risk

You can reduce your risk by choosing species with a lower risk of burning, planting a buffer of less burnable native species and clearing gorse from near or under your trees. Other factors in reducing risk include timing thinning and pruning to minimise the fire risk from waste, avoiding escaped controlled burns, practising good housekeeping in your forest, ensuring machinery is well maintained and operated safely and stopping mechanical operations when the fire risk is very high.

This applies whether you are doing work in the forest yourself or using contractors.


Dealing with a fire

If a fire does start, having ready access for fire fighting vehicles, good signage including RAPID numbers and adequate water supplies are all important in getting firefighters to the scene quickly and preventing the fire from spreading. Other points include not only the importance of wearing appropriate clothing if you are fighting a fire, but more importantly, the importance of getting training and having the expertise to fight fires.

If you intend to deal with small fires yourself make sure you have suitable clothing organised. Natural fibres are best – synthetics melt when exposed to direct or radiant heat, even if worn under cotton or wool. Include leather gloves, sturdy footwear and a hard hat or woollen balaclava in your wardrobe. Eye protection, drinking water and a first aid kit are also vital accessories.

At any fire, people who want to get involved should work through the incident team or fire authority. You cannot just see a flame and start dealing to it, because unless there is some organisation the effort is not as effective and there is a fair bit of risk involved.


Knowing your local fire authority

Get to know your local fire authority, and develop a personal relationship with the principle rural fire officer for the area where your forest is. In a forest fire the fire authority really wants the forest manager or owner sitting right beside them.

One of the things promoted to help forest owners work more closely with their rural fire authority is the Forest ID Protocol, encouraging forest owners to get together a map of the forest, even if it is basic, with details like who to contact, how to get into the forest and water supplies.

You also need to think about the safety of homes and buildings as well as the trees. The FireSmart manual contains a wealth of information, including easy to use checklists so you can assess the fire hazards and level of risk on your property, as well as guidelines for building construction, infrastructure, landscaping and community fire prevention.



Insurance is also a must for every forest owner. There is a subtle difference between forested areas and non-forested areas in terms of the fire authority being able to access the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.

This covers all of the suppression costs associated with a fire less 5% and a $1,000 excess. When the fund was first set up the major forest owners of the day, most of which were self-insured, decided not to join. As a result, no claim can be made for a fire that originates in a commercial forest. In addition there is provision under Section 46 of the Forest & Rural Fires Act for a rural fire authority to impose a levy on forest owners to recover fire suppression costs.

Farm foresters need to be aware of this. If they have trees that are being grown for commercial gain, and if that is where the origin of the fire is, no claim can be made.

The other rule that applies is that if someone can be identified as having caused a fire, wittingly or unwittingly, then recovery can be pushed in that direction.

You need the appropriate fire suppression insurance cover because you can be doing everything right, be very responsible and still end up with a cost. Remember, you need public liability insurance for anything that spreads beyond the boundary and causes damage to anybody else’s property. Even if you have a permit for a burn-off, the permit does not absolve you of responsibility, you would still have to pay the cost of suppression.


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