By Philippa Rawlinson, Federated Farmers Arable Industry Group Advisor
We have all seen on our television screens the risks posed by poor management of vegetation on rural land in recent years. The Lake Ohau blaze that destroyed 48 homes, charred Department of Conservation land that had been ungrazed, the Port Hills fires (2017 and 2020) that saw residents fleeing and the death of a helicopter pilot working to control the flames…
Little wonder then that Fire and Emergency New Zealand is putting a big focus on risk reduction. The organisation was established in 2017 and its mandate is much broader than its predecessors. It’s risk reduction strategy targets risk in our natural and built environment to protect life, property, and our community.
We’re now in the season when mistakes in dry rural areas can have major consequences.
Summer is an arable farmer’s favourite time of the year. It’s when they can be out in their harvesters day and night, harvesting the fruits of many months’ labour. They like the days to be long, hot and dry but unfortunately that’s exactly the conditions that put the risk of wildfires, uncontrolled or unexpected fires into the ‘high’ or even ‘extreme’ bands.
While it may be perverse, farmers use fire as a land management tool to reduce the risk of uncontrolled blazes. For arable farmers, crop residue burning is used at the height of the fire season (February through until April) to reduce fire fuel loads (dry vegetation) and prepare paddocks for planting the next crop.
Cereal crops add to the fire fuel load in rural areas. Harvested dry straw and material left in the paddock is extremely combustible. Even standing crop waiting to be harvested is combustible and farmers may often have a water tanker or even plough a break around the paddock after the first round in case the header or other farm machinery creates a fire. This fire break protects any unharvested crops and property from the risks posed by unwanted fire.
Preparation of paddocks for the following crop can be time critical for an arable farmer as autumn planting of cereal crops can be much more beneficial than traditional spring planting. That is, if the right weather windows prevail. Crop residue burning is used to remove weeds, pests and diseases from the seed bed.
To be able to undertake fire as a land management tool over the summer months, farmers need to apply for a permit from Fire and Emergency New Zealand. In the application farmers will submit such information as the intended paddock to be burned and drop a pin marking the burn location on a map.
As part of this permit process, farmers will need to adhere to a series of criteria designed to reduce the risk of fire escape, such as not burning when winds are over 15km/ph. To further reduce the risk of fire escape, some farmers will have fire fighting equipment on hand such as their own portable water tanker.
Canterbury farmers also need to complete a smoke management plan as part of their obligations to Environment Canterbury’s Air Regional Plan. The smoke management plan describes activities farmers undertake to manage, to the best of their ability, the discharge of smoke in the environment. Those living within 5 kilometres of Ashburton or Timaru need to go one step further and apply to Environment Canterbury for a consent to undertake the burn.
There are other means of reducing fuel loads and preparing paddocks for the next crop. Some farmers will cultivate paddocks numerous times while others will direct drill into post-harvest residue. Direct drilling reduces soil carbon loss, a bonus for our efforts to tackle global warming.
However, these methods are not for everyone and individual farmers will have their own drivers for the decisions that they are making.
Farmers recognise that the use of fire as a land management tool is a privilege and not a right, so will be doing their best to follow the rules in place to mitigate the risks posed by fire as a land management tool.
This summer, when you see a crop residue burn being undertaken remember it is being used as a land management tool to reduce the risks posed by unwanted wildfire which may pose a risk to life, property and other infrastructure.