Special journal issue on Port Hills wildfire


Scion’s Rural Fire Research team made a significant contribution to the latest issue of the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, which focuses on the February 2017 Port Hills wildfire.

Social scientist Lisa Langer was a guest editor, and co-author of a paper with colleague Simon Wegner. Fire scientist Grant Pearce also has a paper published in the special issue.

The Port Hills fire was New Zealand’s most devastating wildfire of recent times. Occurring on the outskirts of Christchurch city, it burned 1660 ha, destroyed 9 homes and damaged 5 others, and resulted in several thousand people being evacuated. The Journal’s special issue is devoted to the wildfire; what happened, and what can be learned.

Grant described the environment under which the fire occurred, its rapid transition into an extreme fire, and its impact relative to previous New Zealand rural-urban interface fires. With climate change likely to bring more and larger fires, and more people moving into areas of flammable vegetation in the interface, wildfires like the Port Hills fire could represent “the new norm’ that homeowners and fire agencies will have to deal with. Grant also stated that New Zealanders “increasingly need to learn to live with wildfire events”, and “it is time to re-think the use of planning controls and homeowner education to mitigate future fire losses at the rural-urban interface”.

Lisa and Simon analysed media reports and social media comments following the fire to gain an indication of how urban residents perceived the fire risk, the social norms that shaped discussion, underlying conflicts, and their understanding of where the responsibility for action lies. They found that that in addition to residents within rural-urban interface areas, urban audiences also need to be “awakened to the increasing risks of wildfires and how to prepare for them”, as the Port Hills fire and recent international wildfire events clearly show they can also be impacted.

In total, the special issue comprises 6 papers, with the others addressing the importance of urban planning to manage wildfire risk, urban planning at the edges of New Zealand cities and how this may have played a role in the 2017 fires, whether or not the fires were deliberately lit, and the importance of considering animal welfare. All papers contained in the special issue are available here.

The release of the special issue has also generated significant media interest, with several stories referencing the Scion research featuring online and in local newspapers:
Emergency services prepare for busy fire season as heavy vegetation growth boosts risk
Wildfires a risk in NZ city fringes where forests and homes meet

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TVNZ weekly fire danger forecasts recommenced


Scion’s Rural Fire Research team has again begun producing weekly fire danger forecasts for airing on TVNZ’s 1News. The first forecasts aired last Friday and Saturday night (11th & 12th January) as part of the 1News weather bulletin, featuring just before 7pm.

The weekly forecasts are part of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s “Check it’s alright before you light” campaign. Thee forecasts cover the expected weather and fire danger conditions for the weekend and into the following week, including information on the fire season status in different parts of the country and key fire prevention messages for the public.

The forecasts are based on weather and fire danger predictions from several sources (including NIWA and MetService), and are released on a Friday morning to TVNZ presenters and rural fire managers, as well as posted on the Scion fire research website. The full 1News at Six episodes featuring the fire danger forecasts each Friday and Saturday night may still be available at TVNZ OnDemand.

The January seasonal fire climate outlooks also produced by the Scion Fire Research team are also now available. These include the outlook for the next three months for each of the North & South Islands, as well as graphs tracking fire danger trends at weather stations in different regions of the country.

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NZ research presented at Portugal fire conference

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Research being conducted as part of the New Zealand rural fire research programme was presented recently at the International Conference on Forest Fire Research (ICFFR) in Coimbra, Portugal.

Using the 2017 Port Hills wildfire as an example, Scion social scientist Lisa Langer presented on the need to consider more urban city dwellers as a new audience for rural-urban interface fire issues. Like the recent Portugal and Californian wildfires, the Port Hills fire impacted more densely populated urban areas than those traditionally considered at risk from wildfires. These more urban areas require increased attention by fire managers, to ensure residents are aware of the risk of wildfires and educated on appropriate mitigation options so they are also prepared to face the risks of potentially devastating wildfires in the future. This research forms part of work being undertaken within the Resilience to Nature’s Challenges programme.

Findings from the first phase of experimental burns conducted in NZ to test the convective fire spread theory were also presented by our U.S. collaborators from the USFS Missoula Fire Sciences Lab. This included results from the crop stubble burns completed in March, as well as new instrumentation development and future plans to conduct burns in shrub (gorse) and wilding conifer fuel types. This research is a major component of the MBIE Extreme Fire programme, and is a collaboration between Scion, the Missoula Fire Science Lab, San Jose State University and University of Canterbury’s Geography Dept.

Copies of papers for each of the presentations are available:

and the full conference proceedings is available here.

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Two new videos on how wildfires spread

Weather Channel

The recent wildfires in the U.S., and California in particular, have generated significant public interest in fires, and how they spread and can (or can’t) be controlled.

Two great new videos, from the New York Times and Weather Channel respectively, and promoted by Wildfire Today, provide simple explanations for how wildfires ignite, spread and are suppressed.

While having a North American focus, the graphics used in the Weather Channel video especially allow viewers to see the role of the weather in affecting wildfire “like never before”.

In another posting, the National Fire Protection Association have produced a video on reducing the wildfire risk around your home which contains some great information that can be applied by New Zealand homeowners as well.

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December seasonal fire outlooks available

Dec seas outlook_SI

Note there was an error in the weblink included in the previous version.

The seasonal outlooks for fire danger conditions over the next three months (Dec Feb.) have just been produced! These provide a heads-up on how fire danger conditions are tracking in different parts of the country as we transition through summer.

As well as full reports for each island containing the outlook for each region, graphs are also available comparing current fire dangers (DC, BUI and CDSR) at individual station locations. The reports and graphs can be accessed here.

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Fire programme receives gold!

Stubb IR imageCrop stubble research burn as viewed through infrared imaging.

Scion’s Extreme Fire research programme has been awarded a Gold rating by the Ministry for Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) for its performance and progress over the past 12 months. Less than 10% of the 250-some MBIE-funded programmes are awarded Gold, so this is a great achievement.

Each year, every research contract is required to submit an annual report on programme status and achievement against contracted milestones. At the end of the second year of its 5-year contract, the Extreme Fire research programme was acknowledged for:

  • Successful completion of the first phase of experimental burns (with 9 vs the contracted 3-4 crop stubble burns achieved)
  • International significance of the science underpinning the burn experiments
  • New tools developments, including the real-time tools suite linking systems for satellite and ground-based fire detection (SmartFire), fire growth prediction (Prometheus) and smoke modelling (BlueSky Framework)
  • Applications beyond wildfire, including smoke impacts of urban fires
  • Ongoing role in promoting learnings from the Port Hills and other recent rural-urban interface wildfires
  • Increasing international and national collaborations
  • Extensive end user engagement (described as some of the most passionate end users MBIE have seen!)

The Fire team is extremely grateful for the strong support it has had from research collaborators, end-users and land owners/managers which has allowed it to achieve this recognition.

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Communicating fire danger for behaviour change

Roadside billboard-Wgtn 2010

How much do the familiar fire danger rating signs and other communication methods actually change people’s behaviour?

Scientists from Scion’s Rural Fire Research Group have looked at how fire danger communication can influence behaviour to reduce wildfires. This work was supported by funding from Fire and Emergency New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Fire Service Commission).

The researchers brought together interview responses from fire managers and researchers in New Zealand and overseas, as well as a findings from a range of behaviour change literature, with the aim of providing fire managers and communities with better guidance for communicating fire danger and wildfire risk.

Current communication is about distributing information on signs and in the print media. But there is evidence that information alone does not change behaviour. Initiatives that go beyond risk awareness, using emotions, habits and social norms are effective ways to change behaviour. People will also only change if they feel their actions will make a real difference. Therefore it is important to be clear on what the desired outcome of a change is, show that it is achievable, and demonstrate its impact.

Read more about the work in:
Rural Fire Research Update 14,
Fire Technology Transfer Note No. 44, and
• the full FENZ Research Report No. 156

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Fire use survey findings

Farmer burning stubble

Scion’s Fire Research team has published another Rural Fire Research Update. Update #13 describes the findings from a survey on the use of fire as a land management tool in New Zealand. Fire is widely used for the removal of organic rubbish, invasive weed clearance, land preparation, grass growth regeneration and stock access improvement. But the practice is not without risk, as escapes from burns are common and smoke impacts are  major concerns.

The findings from the survey give a better understanding of the regional and audience differences in fire use practices and concerns. The data is being used to help develop targeted information and burn training courses that aim to reduce the adverse effects of fire, particularly effects of fire and smoke on human safety and health, as well as to help inform the general public as to why burning is taking place.

Read more about the study survey findings in Rural Fire Research Update 13, and the associated report.

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November seasonal fire outlooks available


The seasonal outlooks for fire danger conditions over the next three months (Nov-Jan.) have just been produced.

These provide a heads-up on how fire danger conditions are tracking in different parts of the country as we transition from spring into summer.

As well as full reports for each island containing the outlook for each region, graphs are also available comparing current fire dangers (DC, BUI and CDSR) at individual station locations.

The reports and graphs can be accessed here.

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Fire Behaviour & Fuels Conference – save the date!


The International Fire Behaviour & Fuels Conference is held every 3-4 years. The 6th edition, in April/May 2019, will be held concurrently in Australia, France & USA, with live-streamed shared keynote presentations. The conference theme of “Fuels of Today – Fire Behavior of Tomorrow” aims to bring focus to the many issues associated with understanding fuels, fire behaviour, large wildfires, and how they affect sound decision making and effective wildland fire management in the future.

This conference therefore provides a valuable opportunity for fire personnel and researchers at all levels to share information globally about wildland fire behaviour and fuels, especially as it pertains to physical, biological, economic, and social sciences. The call for abstracts is still open if you’d like to be a speaker (now closes 21 November) – note that there are separate submission systems for each location, so please select carefully to submit your presentation proposal to the conference location you will be attending.

For more information, go to http://www.firebehaviorandfuelsconference.com/

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