The current spate of bushfires across the Tasman and the destructive grass fires in Canterbury once again highlight the very real risks posed by uncontrollable fires in rural and semi-rural environments.
These dangers are all the more poignant when considering that the phenomenon is essentially an annual occurrence. In fact, studies from NIWA scientists conclude that every year in New Zealand an average of 3000 wildfires burn a total of 7000 hectares of rural land, with the prospect of worse to come through the effects of global warming.
While factors such as recent rainfall, prevailing winds and topography play a notable part in the severity of these fires, the flammability of plants (essentially the fuel for the fires) is a major contributor.
While there has been little research on the flammability of New Zealand plant species, Lincoln University Lecturer in Ecology, Dr Timothy Curran, is working toward bridging this knowledge gap through a series of projects funded by the University.
Although the research is still in its early stages, Dr Curran is using a specially designed ‘plant BBQ’ to measure the flammability of shoots for a range of native and exotic plant species. Thus far, the research has focused primarily on commonly used plant material such as gorse, macrocarpa or pine to assess flammability relative to its volume or moisture content.
“It’s important research,” says Dr Curran. “Future flammability studies of native and exotic species will provide valuable information for fire managers, land managers and the rural community in general. The hope is to use this research to help control fires through, among other things, such techniques as the planting of low flammability plants as a kind of fire break.”