Fire prevention 'critical' but forest operations will continue

17 December 2015 

Forest operations will continue in Nelson and Marlborough forests during summer, except when the fire risk is at its highest. Andrew Karalus, estate manager for Nelson Management Limited, says providing continuous work is important for those working in the industry and it enables the industry to attract and retain highly skilled people.

"It's a trade-off to some extent. The risk of fire can never be totally eliminated, but there are probably 1500 people working in forests in the region who rely on year-round work for their livelihoods. Then there are the servicing firms, the trucking companies and wood processors - there are a lot of locals who rely on a steady wood flow for their income."

Mr Karalus says the weather conditions that led to the recent Parsons Road, Wairau Valley fire were not unusual. The fire risk at the time was code blue - midway on the five step code - so the outbreak and its severity came as a surprise.

"For 15 years we have been successfully operating without any major fires under conditions where the fire risk has been much more severe than we have had so far this summer. We will learn more from the latest events and we are tapping into expert advice to find out what happened and to improve our controls."

He says the forest fire danger codes, which were developed as a collaboration between the forest industry and two Rural Fire Authorities have been under review for six months. The codes have been found to be pretty sound. However more work needs to be done to respond to the conditions under which a fire is more likely to start and spread.

"Typically, in a drought such as we had last summer, we reach conditions of code red. We don't have anyone felling or working in the cut-over forest during the heat of the day. Smoking and fires are of course totally banned. After crews leave for the day, someone stays behind to check that the site is completely safe and nothing develops into a fire," Mr Karalus says.

"More challenging is the highly changeable weather we are experiencing at present, where periods of high-risk come and go during the day. We need to be able to identify when this is happening and respond quickly to avoid fire starts."

Mr Karalus says the forest industry takes fire prevention extremely seriously and has a highly skilled workforce who are ready to respond to rural fires in the region. Until recently he was chair of the Waimea Rural Fire Authority.

"We have a vested interest of course. We have people working in our forests and neighbours whose lives and property can be put at risk by fire. Then there are the trees lost and the cost of putting a fire out."

He says the forest industry is fortunate to have export markets that will take fire damaged logs from mature trees, albeit at a discount. Nelson Forests was also fortunate that most of the trees affected by the recent fire were a harvestable age - younger trees would have been a total write-off.

Also, on most of the 1250 hectares affected, the fire swept through the undergrowth leaving the trees intact, apart from some charring to the base of the stems. On other areas where the fire got into the crowns of the trees, the logs will have no value.

Mr Karalus thanks all those who helped control the Parsons Road fire and those who were inconvenienced by the fire and the control operations.

"Our forestry crews were heavily involved in this. They also provide much of the workforce involved in the control of other rural fires. Only about 5 per cent of rural fires actually involve plantation forests."

He cautions everyone living or holidaying in Nelson-Marlborough or anywhere on the east coast of both islands during this El Nino summer to take the fire risk extremely seriously.

"Fires travel fast in light dry fuels like forest prunings, long grass and scrub. They move extremely fast uphill. Under windy conditions they are very difficult to control and often are only stopped when a change in wind direction or the onset of rain enables the fire fighters to gain the upper hand."

Source: Nelson Management Limited/NZFOA media release