‘Who knows what the summer is going to bring’: El Niño expected to increase fire risk

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) officials at the scene of Monday’s Port Hills fire are stressing “vigilance” ahead of what is shaping up as an unpredictable summer.

A firefighter at the scene of Monday’s Port Hills fire. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Crews have contained the blaze, which ignited at about midday on Monday, and scorched an area of the northern slopes of the Port Hills, near Hillsborough.

But the emergency has sparked further questions as to whether this could be a sign of things to come, with El Niño predicted to make conditions drier and windier.

One resident, forced to act quickly at the time as flames threatened her land, admitted her neck of the woods at the base of the Port Hills naturally came with risk.

The mountain ranges have been susceptible to fire in recent years, none bigger than the 2017 fires that destroyed nine homes and forced hundreds to evacuate.

A helicopter pilot was killed when their chopper crashed when fighting the devastating blaze.

Another fire broke out in December 2020, forcing dozens of nearby properties to be evacuated.

A cause is still being determined for Monday’s blaze, and although it was largely contained, an area flared up shortly after 5am Tuesday morning.

FENZ group manager Des Irving said crews spent the morning “checking for hotspots and turning the soil over”.

“We are planning for a warm and dry summer. Who knows what the summer is going to bring.”

Irving said locals could allay risk by ensuring grass was cut and firewood not stacked against their buildings. This recommendation extended to local authorities, he said.

Another precaution was checking the weather forecast before burn-offs.

“I think what’s key is that people are vigilant, and if they see any signs of smoke they call 111.”

Scene commanders were hoping to have departed the scene by 2pm.

A woman who lived along Port Hills Road, who did not want to be named, was alerted to the blaze when a neighbour rushed to warn her. She then saw flames threatening a section of trees at the back of her property.

“I basically checked on the animals… it always makes you think if you have to leave in a hurry, what are you going to take.”

Firefighters utilised a track through the back of her section to get access to the fire, as they did back in 2020, she said.

Although she had become accustomed to emergencies, she told RNZ she refused to get apprehensive about the coming summer.

“I’m living next to the Port Hills… there’s dead trees, there’s live trees, there’s pine cones, there’s grass, I would say it’s as much a risk as anywhere in Canterbury.

“We’re coming into summer and it’s getting hotter and the risk is getting higher. But it’s not going to make me go and crawl into a concrete box.”

She was equally worried about the neighbouring industrial area along State Highway 76, which she felt posed a risk.

El Niño effect

Scion wildfire scientist Shana Gross said El Niño would increase fire risk, particularly for eastern parts of the country.

“It will depend on what weather we see, because every El Niño is variable. El Niño is probably only 25 percent of the variability that we see in the weather. But this year is different because the ocean is so warm already.”

Human activities were also seen as the cause of most fire ignitions in New Zealand, Gross said.

“In the Port Hills, there are a lot of grasses which burn pretty readily, and winds will dry them out so they can burn easier.

“Everyone needs to be really aware of the activities that they’re doing.”

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