Special journal issue on Port Hills wildfire

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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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