Is DOC policy fueling fires?
Farmers say wilding vegetation on DOC land helped fuel the Lake Ōhau fire but the conservation minister has hit back saying nature does not start fires.
The Ōhau fire destroyed at least 20 homes and forced around 90 people to evacuate.
Federated Farmers High Country Committee chairman Rob Stokes said he had been warning the government about this danger for 12 years.
He said DOC closing up land for national parks meant that the ground was not grazed by sheep and cattle and therefore tussocks and grass were left to grow wild.
“I’ve been in the high country committee for 12 years and we’ve bought it up with DOC every year – the fuel that has been built up over the years is going to be an ongoing issue.
“It’s early in the season to be hit but it won’t be the last fire that’s for sure,” Stokes said.
He said it was good the government was investing a lot into wilding pine and weed control but more needs to be done.
“The scrub builds up over a year – when the country used to be clean we had buffer zones, but the conservation land is a bomb waiting to go off.”
Andrew Simpson farms merino sheep and cattle at Balmoral Station near Lake Tekapo.
He has notified Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage often about this problem.
“I’ve told her they may need to rethink how they manage some of this conservation land it is a fuel load and a disaster waiting to happen.
“She didn’t dismiss grazing it again but I’ve said that she might have to do some strategic fuel loading burns to get rid some of the problem areas like they do in Australia.
“It creates fire breaks and alleviates the risk of so much land being burnt,” Simpson said. . .
Mackenzie District mayor Graham Smith also blames DOC mismanagement of conservation land:
Five weeks ago, a fire near Lake Pukaki, near Twizel, burned through more than 3500ha of land – much of it wilding pines – on August 30.
Mr Smith has joined a growing chorus of voices calling for better management of Doc land to prevent such blazes from burning out of control in future. . .
“It is a huge risk to neighbouring properties to have areas of land with that much vegetation and fuel for fires. I would like to see better management practises.”
Ms Sage today visited Lake Ohau village and said she remained focused on the losses people faced in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
However, she said there would be a need for a conversation about ‘‘land management in the bigger picture’’ in future.
The current Government had put $100 million over four years into controlling wilding conifers, Ms Sage said, and on conservation land these had been substantially reduced.
‘‘Federated Farmers, I think, was making a push for free grazing,” she said. “Nature doesn’t start fires except by occasional lightning strikes, it’s managing human activity that is the key.”
No-one said anything about free. If light grazing was permitted it could help fund conservation.
North Otago Federated Farmers high country chairman Simon Williamson, a farm owner between Omarama and Twizel, said he had been woken by news of the Lake Ohau fire after 3am yesterday. . .
Mr Williamson said the retired land the fire was spreading through was a “huge risk” that had not been addressed.
“All this ground that’s been locked up and hasn’t been grazed is becoming a hazard to life. The fuel loading in the land is just huge.”
Mr Williamson said having two fires in the past month highlighted the dangers of retired land and wilding pines.
“People are saying they want to lock everything up and create a safe habitat, but you’re not locking it up when it’s not being grazed or managed … you get one spark and it spreads and burns everything in sight.”
Mr Williamson said he heard of three or four farms that had lost livestock or had to move it.
“It’s really disappointing. We’ve been warning of this for a long time … once upon a time it was all grazing land.
“There’s a mindset that grazing is bad and it kills wildlife, but the reality is these massive blazes are going to happen more and more and spread further and further.”
The government has put millions into wilding pine control but that is a different issue from the fuel load that builds up when grass and scrub aren’t grazed.
The tenure review process has put many thousands of hectares under DOC control and not all has been a conservation success.
Farmers used to carry out weed and pest control but DOC hasn’t been funded to do as much of that as is needed.
And contrary to the views of those dark green advocates, removing stock doesn’t mean the land returns to the pristine condition in which they think it existed in a utopian past.
The hills around the summit of the Lindis Pass used to be covered in tussock. Without the stock grazing and application of fertiliser that happened when the area was farmed, hieracium is colonising the hillsides and the tussock is disappearing.
That isn’t nearly as scenic as the tussock was but it’s the danger of the growing fuel load that worries neighbouring land owners most.
Lightening strikes excepted, nature doesn’t start fires. But left to its own devices nature does add to the fuel load that increases the risk of fire spreading regardless of how it starts.