The Nelson fires and climate change…

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?

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.