The Front Page: ‘It’s hard to breathe’ – As Europe burns, is New Zealand ready for wildfire season?


Wildfires have ravaged Europe during the Northern Hemisphere summer. Photo/AP

More than 600,000 ha of Europe have been burned this year by endemic forest fires.

It is the second highest total of all years and comes amid a heatwave that has killed more than 2,000 people in Spain and Portugal alone.

“Sometimes it’s hard to breathe,” says New Zealand Herald planning director Vera Alves, who recently returned to the outskirts of Lisbon to visit family.

“The sky often looks cloudy, but it’s not a cloud, it’s smoke. And the air is really, really dry… The other day it was 42 degrees and it didn’t It’s not even something I want to brag about to people in the winter, because it’s just unbearable.”

Addressing theFront Page PodcastAlves says one mistake she made was to assume wildfires are limited to remote rural areas.

“I saw one from my window the other day,” she says.

“It’s a lot closer to buildings and towns than I thought. It’s definitely not what I expected. It’s a lot worse.”

Portugal has declared a state of emergency and the country has devoted enormous resources to trying to bring the situation under control.

“There are restrictions on some of the activities people can do to stop the fires from spreading. They’ve also recruited a lot more firefighters, but honestly things don’t seem to be under control. The scale is so vast. “

Firefighters using a hose to fight a forest fire near Landiras in southwestern France.  Photo / Firefighters of Gironde / via AP
Firefighters using a hose to fight a forest fire near Landiras in southwestern France. Photo / Firefighters of Gironde / via AP

Alves says Portugal‘s mistake was not doing enough before this event, after a forest fire in 2017 killed 66 people.

Events unfolding in the northern hemisphere raise serious questions about New Zealand’s level of preparedness for the likelihood of wildfires in the warmer months.

This chaos in Europe comes at a time when many of the country’s fire trucks are carrying messages claiming firefighters are “underpaid and undervalued”.

New Zealand firefighters are calling for better working conditions.  Photo / Bevan Conley
New Zealand firefighters are calling for better working conditions. Photo / Bevan Conley

Joe Stanley, the vice president of the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU), told Front Page he was “extremely concerned” about what the hottest and driest months hold for New Zealand.

“The Northern Hemisphere wildfires are really indicative of the significant change we’re seeing in our climate through the current crisis,” Stanley said.

These changes, he says, have led to wetter winters and drier summers, putting New Zealand at increased risk of extreme events.

While New Zealand was spared an uptick in wildfires last summer due to wetter conditions, Stanley warns we can’t count on this every year.

“We were very lucky last summer. Although the temperatures were very high, we did not have any drought conditions due to the distribution of clouds in the southern hemisphere. We will not be able to not be counting on that next year or the year after.”

The threat of wildfires is not something to be laughed at. The Port Hills and Nelson fires over the past decade have provided insight into the severity of these disasters for New Zealand.

“We have nearly 15,000 operational personnel across the country, made up of career and volunteer firefighters. For those two fires, I would say we probably mobilized 75% of our entire task force, which is a significant number of people working on a large scale. large-scale campaign that lasts for weeks. The manpower involved is absolutely huge.

The problem at the moment is that firefighters in Aoteaora already feel overwhelmed in non-catastrophic conditions.

“Career firefighters across the country are significantly understaffed. There are firefighters in Auckland working over 100 hours a week to ensure we can maintain a level of response and fire engines can open the fire. door to emergency rooms in our communities,” Stanley said.

“Where I am in Christchurch we have a number of firefighters who probably work 80 to 90 hours a week.”

These difficult working conditions have contributed to the escalation of the NZPFU strike and will stop work for one hour from 11 a.m. to noon on August 19 and 26.

Stanley says he doesn’t believe firefighters have enough resources to respond to emergencies at the level they should be.

“As someone who works on a fire truck every day, I am disappointed that more money is not being spent to respond to communities in need. The lack of heavy antennas, the deplorable state of our fleet aging and decrepit pumphouse is just one example of how money is not being spent in the right places.”

These issues leave Stanley deeply concerned about the ability of the fire department to respond to the threat of wildfires in the years to come.

“It depends on the size of the wildfires, but I’m really concerned that we don’t have the staff and resources across the organization to deal with large wildfires,” he says.

“We are using old and dilapidated equipment. We are fighting to keep firefighters on the job because of the number of hours they work. We are fighting against volunteers and their responsibilities to their own employers.”

Response from Fire and Emergency NZ

Fire and Emergency NZ Deputy National Commander Brendan Nally told the Herald that changing weather conditions presented a greater risk, but his organization was well prepared and resourced to fight the wildfires.

“A warmer, hotter, drier climate is likely to bring more days of high or extreme fire danger, longer fire seasons, and more extreme weather, including higher wind speeds and lower relative humidity – all of which contribute to increased fire danger,” Nally said. .

He explained that these factors alone do not necessarily lead to more wildfires.

“Most forest fires in New Zealand are caused by human activity,” he said.

“Everyone can do their part to reduce the risk of fire and protect what they value. This can include clearing vegetation around homes, planting less flammable plants and checking weather conditions and danger before starting a fire or doing any activity that could cause a spark.”

Local residents watch as a wildfire rolls up a slope towards the village of Casal da Quinta, outside Leiria in central Portugal.  Photo/AP
Local residents watch as a wildfire rolls up a slope towards the village of Casal da Quinta, outside Leiria in central Portugal. Photo/AP

Nally said Fire and Emergency’s new community risk management teams are working with communities and landowners to help mitigate the risk of wildfires.

He also said they are using more technology to monitor the climate to identify areas of greatest risk.

“We use specialized technology, including the collection of weather information from fixed and portable weather stations, which allow us to monitor temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation and relative humidity – all factors which play an important role in the intensity and speed of the fire,” he said.

“This weather information provides valuable fire forecasting and modeling during an incident, such as during the Waiharara fire earlier this year, to inform the likely behavior of the fire at any time.”

Nally says the organization is working to ensure it has a full range of skills to reduce the risk of wildfires. That, he says, includes creating a national team of wildfire specialists.

Whether these measures are enough to prevent New Zealand from suffering the same fate as Australia and Europe will be determined in the years to come.

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