The Burning Of An International Wetland

Whangamarino, An Ecological Event

 

John Greenwood, District Conservator, Tainui District

 

[This article appeared in The Rural Firefighter, August 1989]

 

Friday the thirteenth of January 1989 was indeed a bad day for the Department of Conservation staff in the Tainui District. It was at 8.40 am on this day that the District Conservator John Greenwood was advised of a fire burning in the wetland located just east of the Meremere coal fired power station.

 

Whangamarino is a wetland of International importance. That is it fulfils several of the criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Nature Resources ‑ for such an area. For example the Australasian bittern population in the wetland is the largest in Australasia. The total population in New Zealand may be less than 1000 of which 250 may dwell in the Whangamarino. The North Island fernbird is another species to be found in the wetland. Thousands of pairs live in the peat bog areas of the wetland forming one of the largest populations in New Zealand.

 

It was therefore with some dismay that news of this fire was received in the Tainui District office.

 

Fortunately one of the Tainui staff members was already in the area having gone there to check out the barge kept on the Whangamarino river for just such an emergency. The fire co‑ordination centre set up in Tainui District was therefore very quickly able to establish that a major fire was burning in two separate areas of the wetland, provoking early speculation that the fire had been deliberately lit.

 

A Senior Conservation Officer was therefore dispatched to the wetland together with a fire crew and other crews were also dispatched from DOC's Auckland office. Other crews were put on standby at various other DOC centres to provide backup as needed.

 

Meanwhile the Mercer volunteer brigade had turned out and were attending the fire, as was the Meremere industrial brigade. However little could be done, other than provide protection for houses and other buildings coming under threat from the blaze. It was not possible at this stage for personnel to go out onto the bog to fight the fire as the ability to move about freely was known to be restricted by the vegetation and the wet nature of the bog. Liaison was established with the Mercer and Meremere brigades until a total strategy for fighting the fire was established.

 

At an early point the decision was made to call in helicopters to fight the fire, and use ground crews to support these machines and to protect any fringe areas coming under threat. One particular area under threat was the Maramarua forest of Timberlands on the eastem side of the wetland. Timberlands were also involved in monitoring the fire's progress and had already been asked to make their stock of Firetrol available for the helicopter attack when it started.

 

The fire was burning in two separate areas. These were separated by an area of high ground along which the Island Block Road runs. Another early decision made was to concentrate fighting the fire on the north side of Island Block Road as that was where the threat to the Maramarua forest was located. The fire on the south side was to be monitored until the threat on the north side was contained.

 

With the arrival of the first of three helicopters used on the Friday, the Mercer brigade was utilised to assist the DOC staff to pump for the monsoon buckets. A good system was soon operating and eventually two Squirrel helicopters and a Jet Ranger were engaged in fighting the blaze. By mid aftemoon the wind had increased to a point where the monsoon buckets were ineffectual even with Firetrol added to each load of water. Reluctantly a decision was made by the fire controller to stand down the helicopters until the wind dropped and they could become effective again. This decision was not received very well by some parties to the fight but in retrospect was probably the right one.

 

Later in the afternoon the wind did drop again and the fight was renewed with fresh vigour and by dark the fire on the north side of the road was under control. A night shift was established after the crews had all been fed by an army mobile kitchen provided through the liaison of the Timberlands senior staff,so that the fire was under constant monitoring all night.

 

On the morning of Saturday 18th an early morning recce' by fixed wing aircraft was carried out and established that the north fire was well and truly out and that the south fire was buming very slowly in a westerly direction. New fire crews were arriving on site and after an initial slow start, a strategy of using ground fire fighters and a helicopter and monsoon bucket was put successfully into operation. Although this strategy was somewhat slower than using several helicopters it was nevertheless successfull and by late afternoon the fire was, to all intents and purposes, out.

 

About 2000 hectares was burnt in the fire. An unknown number of Fembirds were killed and Spotless Crake were displaced and would die following destruction of their habitat. The plants will grow again but the destruction of the vegetation resulted in the small pools in the bog heating with the sun getting to them and hundreds of the rare Black Mudfish have also died.

 

WHAT HAS DOC LEARNT FROM THE FIRE?

 

The fire, we now know, was deliberately lit. It was seen burning late on the night of Thursday 12th January, but locals claim they did not know who to contact. Therefore DOC's liaison with adjoining owners has to be improved.

 

In fighting the fire we have now learnt that it is possible to fight the fire on foot with helicopter backup. The technique used was for the ground staff to work in the already burnt areas and to quickly follow the passing of the monsoon bucket and using shovels and beaters to put out remaining flames while they were weaker. Of course all the staff must be very fit as this is exhausting work. The helicopter can also be used to transport ground crews and pumps quickly to areas of the bog that would otherwise be out of range to them.

 

(A word of caution would be appropriate at this point.  This fire, while fought over a peat bog, did not at any stage become a peat fire. This particular bog was very wet because of a very wet spring due in some measure at least to the so called greenhouse effect Fire fighters should ext some caution before moving onto an area where the fire has been able to. penetrate into the sub surface of peat bogs).

 

Perhaps the most important lesson though is the necessity to rnaintain liaison with other fire authorities and in particular to make sure that we know who each other is. This fire was a remarkable example of a number of separate authorities co‑operating together. DOC acknowledges the help given in many cases at no direct cost to it. Mercer volunteer brigade, Te Kauwhata volunteer brigade, Meremere Industrial brigade, Waikato County Council, Timberlands, NZ Fire Service, NZ Army, many local people, and of course DOC staff who put their utmost into saving this important wetland from destruction.