Note to self: Must stop going to the welcoming sunshine of Nelson. Not because I dislike the place – that’s impossible. It’s because the visits usually coincide with calamities of one sort or another.
First a giant squid washed ashore at Farewell Spit in 2011, then the next year, a mass stranding of pilot whales in Golden Bay in February 2017. And finally, last month’s Nelson fires – the worst in 60 years and the third worst in New Zealand’s history).
We flew into Nelson when the fires began and over the right wing of the aircraft and noticed a cotton wool plume of smoke to the South of the city. A backyard burn-off? Perhaps. Either way it was miles away from the city where we met old friends and in the dry heat, shook off Auckland’s humidity.
Overnight this relatively insignificant plume was ablaze in the Redwood and Pigeon Valley devouring nearly 800 hectares and provoking a local state of emergency. We turned our backs on it to travel to Marlborough. But even in this spectacularly beautiful region with its sunburned pastures, its vineyards and vertiginous, pine-planted slopes, the talk was all about the fire.
It had spread even more; hundreds were being evacuated a local state of emergency was declared and more firefighters and other resources poured into the area. Still it was There. Not in the Nelson we returned to.
But hints of its presence wafted across the bays to us. It was here, not by way of anything as anything as a fire but in a miasma of wood smoke creeping into the city’s streets. By nightfall that day it remained, but didn’t deter Nelson’s diners from pavement eateries – or for that matter the local Morris Dancers. They seemed invigorated by the throat tickling air as they pranced their dance, jigged their gig.
We flew out the next day just as a fresh fire broke out – this time in the city’s marine suburbs at Walter’s Bluff. Thank you Walter. My departure and your arrival meant that there was no jinx, just coincidence.
Very reluctantly, the fires died down, life returned to some semblance of normality for most of the evacuees. This fire, threatening as it was, indicated that the threat of wildfires would spread to other areas not commonly regarded as having a high fire risk.
The Science Media Centre predicted that the conditions which make wildfires more common are heat, lack of soil moisture and higher wind, ‘and these are all projected to increase in eastern parts of New Zealand’.
They included areas like coastal Otago, the Manawatū area, in and around Wellington and places like that fire scientist Grant Pearce told RNZ.
The good news, sort of, is that areas which already had severe fire risk, such as Marlborough, Canterbury and the North Island’s East Coast, are expected to change only slightly he added. That doesn’t add up to good news really. And for locals this fire signals possible shifts in the way the land is farmed and how that most precious commodity, water is allocated. Should pine plantings remain now that the possibility of more common and disastrous wildfires has been been flagged?