On-call forecasting helps fight fires

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When a fire breaks out, the first call you make is to 111. Fire and Emergency New Zealand, meanwhile, calls NIWA.

Helicopters with monsoon buckets dump water on fires on Christchurch's Port Hills. Better information on weather conditions significantly improved firefighters ability dowse the flames. [Photo: Christchurch City Council Newsline]

For the past year, NIWA’s meteorologists have been on call to provide real-time, comprehensive information about weather patterns that may accelerate a fire … and boy, have they been kept busy.

Over the 2016/17 summer, NIWA’s on-call forecast team received more than 100 requests from Fire and Emergency New Zealand for up-to-date forecasts.

“One night I got three calls – one around 1am, another at 3am, and another at 6am. It was a fairly sleepless night all round. January through to March was a very active period for fires, and requests for forecasts,” recalled NIWA meteorologist Seth Carrier, who is one of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s ‘go to guys’ for fire weather information alongside Chris Brandolino and Ben Noll.

NIWA meteorologist Seth Carrier and Thomas Harre from Fire and Emergency New Zealand. [Photo: Stuart Mackay, NIWA]

Fighting fires together

NIWA’s on-call forecasting service was introduced officially on 1 February 2017 following an extensive pilot. The contract formalises more than a decade of support and partnership between NIWA and Fire and Emergency New Zealand that has included developing improved forecasting methods.

Four years ago, NIWA replaced Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s outdated Fire Weather System with its purpose built EcoConnect-Fire, a unique system that combines data including wind direction, wind speed, rainfall, temperatures, and humidity, to provide a comprehensive, tailored, multihazard forecast.

In addition to EcoConnect, which is accessible via mobile, email and online, NIWA provides nationwide weather forecasts for the New Zealand Fire Service on request.

Port Hills put the system to the test

Most of the fires NIWA provides forecasts for are thankfully contained or extinguished within hours. When the conditions are just right, however, fires can rage on for weeks, which is exactly what happened in Canterbury in February. On a quiet Monday afternoon on 13 February, two separate fires started on different sites in the Port Hills of Christchurch. Within 36 hours the fires had combined causing mass evacuations of nearby residents, power outages to more than 89,000 homes, destruction of 11 homes, and an eventual declaration of a civil defence emergency.

Fires raged on for weeks on Christchurch's Port Hills. [Photo: Christchurch City Council Newsline]

NIWA’s meteorological team was on hand releasing forecasts twice daily to allow the fire fighters to get a jump on potential hot spots.

“It was a very intense period for all involved. The Port Hills fire was much larger and went on for a lot longer than most fires that are fought over the summer period. We provided forecasts at 8am every day and again at 4pm and were oncall over night to provide updates as required,” Mr Carrier said.

“Fire and Emergency New Zealand brought in portable weather stations to obtain real-time data on the weather conditions in the Hills that we could feed into EcoConnect and provide even more precise forecasts. Feedback from the New Zealand Fire Service was very positive, particularly about the accuracy of the forecasts. With NIWA’s forecasts, the New Zealand Fire Service could assess weather conditions and determine how many personnel they would need in a certain spot.”

Port Hills fires caused mass evacuations of nearby residents, power outages to more than 89,000 homes, destruction of 11 homes, and an eventual declaration of a civil defence emergency. [Photo: Ross Younger]

NIWA staff personally impacted

Several NIWA staff whose homes were in the firing line personally benefitted from their colleagues’ forecasts. Chief Scientist, Coasts and Oceans, Barb Hayden had to escape her 20ha farm situated on the lower slopes of the Port Hills, just 700m away from where the first fire started. The helicopters commandeered to help douse the fires used water from her pool to stop the fire spreading to houses and nearby pine plantations.

“[By the time] the state of civil emergency was declared, hundreds of people had been evacuated from their homes in areas near the fire, including a bunch of NIWA folk. About 75 per cent of our land burned. Our focus now is on repairing about 2km of fences, dropping about 100 burnt pine trees that are now a hazard and getting rid of the gazillions of gorse seedlings that germinated after the fire. Chris Brandolino kept us updated with weather forecasts to inform best days to reseed (the land).”

[This feature appeared in Water & Atmosphere 19]

Research subject: Drought