Ohau a reminder of our vulnerability

The Ohau fire has come as a shock to us all. It brought to mind images of the fires in Eastern Australia and California with 50 houses demolished in one windswept night.

The infamy this fire will hold in public memory has its terrors and heartaches, but most would say it has been pulled up short of the scorching tragedy it had the potential to be.

Emergency services planning and execution, community support and personal bravery all worked as one during the worst of the blaze. It worked because people knew about it, had practised what to do. From the moment the first alarm was raised the small community sprang into action and got themselves outa there

How many other towns in fire risk areas around New Zealand can say they have a similar plan? That they would be so well prepared and able to react in a timely way? As individuals, as families, as a community?

What about Wanaka? After all, we have a forest out the back and a lot of manuka/kanuka cover over the slopes of Mt Iron. Can we say we have an exit plan should Mt Iron go up in smoke?

We have to admit luck played some part in the Ohau tragedy. A barking dog alerted its owner who in turn alerted the township. What if this hadn't happened? Even a few minutes could have meant the difference between life and death. The Waitaki District mayor Gary Kircher admitted as much in a TV interview.

And let's not forget the Lake Pukaki fire five weeks beforehand – two fires and summer isn't even upon us yet.

The government intends to spend $36m to tackle the wilding plan problem blamed for fuelling these fires. Half of this will be spent in the Mackenzie Country. Is this enough to deter another fire incident in the district? I guess it's better late than never.

DOC's land management is under scrutiny, especially as it says fireproofing the Mackenzie Country isn't really possible. It's not just the trees that burn, grazed tussocks burn pretty well too.

At the same time, farmers accuse DOC of mismanagement of land no longer being grazed but left in vegetation that carries an increasing fire load. And in this, a time of climate change. The then Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage agreed that land management had to be looked into.

But it's not all bad news - Environment Canterbury is confident it can solve the problem.

ECan's special projects biosecurity advisor Steve Palmer said the fires were a sobering reminder of the damage wilding pines cause.

Palmer said that since receiving its first tranche of funding - $16 million - for wilding control from the Ministry for Primary Industries in 2016, ECan has been clearing ten separate "management units" of wilding pines, which cover over 1 million hectares.

Palmer said ECan, which is also spending almost $1m of its own rates on the problem, had in the past four years managed to tackle many zones in the Mackenzie Country effectively and was working closely with landowners to ensure they have good management practices.

Even so, the New Zealand public will be looking for answers when it comes to combustible qualities of this part of New Zealand.

Read edition 997 of the WānakaSun here.

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