Volume 22, Port Hills Wildfire Special Issue

Contents - Volume 22, Port Hills Wildfire Special Issue

Published December 2018
Volume 22, Port Hills Wildfire Special Issue (complete issue)

Contents page - Volume 22, Port Hills Wildfire Special Issue


Special Issue Editorial

Editorial: Special Issue on the Port Hills wildfire

E.R. (Lisa) Langer, J. McLennan & D.M. Johnston

Keywords: Port Hills, Canterbury, wildfire, emergency management

In February 2017, two wildfires in the Canterbury region of New Zealand merged to form a devastating, extreme wildfire event which threatened hundreds of properties within the rural-urban interface on the fringe of the city of Christchurch. Fourteen houses were destroyed or significantly damaged and over 450 households fled the blazes while hundreds of firefighters, military and other emergency personnel responded. Fourteen helicopters equipped with monsoon buckets and three fixed wing aircraft were deployed in what became a major operation for the region’s emergency services. The current special issue focuses on lessons that can be learned from this wildfire event, to help authorities and communities to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from future wildfire threats. Climate change is further raising the stakes for at-risk regions in Australasia in the future. After providing a brief summary of the wildfire event, this editorial outlines how each of the special issue papers contributes to knowledge about different aspects of these and other comparable wildfires.

Research Papers

The 2017 Port Hills wildfires – a window into New Zealand’s fire future?

H. G. Pearce

Keywords: wildfire risk, rural-urban interface, house loss, New Zealand

The Port Hills fire of February 2017 was New Zealand’s most devastating wildfire of recent times. Occurring on the outskirts of Christchurch city, it burned 1660 hectares, destroyed 9 homes and damaged 5 others, and resulted in the evacuation of more than 1400 residents from 450 households. If it were not for the efforts of firefighting agencies, the losses could have been very much greater. It is however worrying, when considered in the context of other significant rural-urban interface wildfires during the 2016/17 fire season, the trend of increasing house loss in New Zealand, and projections for future fire risk with climate change, that the Port Hills wildfire could become the norm that New Zealand fire agencies have to deal with. Now is the time to re-think the use of planning controls and homeowner education to mitigate future fire losses at the rural-urban interface.

Institutionalising wildfire planning in New Zealand: Lessons learnt from the 2009 Victoria bushfire experience

M. Kornakova & B. Glavovic

Keywords: land-use planning, wildfire risk, Port Hills fire, New Zealand, Victoria bushfires, Australia, institutional barriers, institutional enablers

The Port Hills wildfire experience demonstrates the severity of wildfire risk on the periphery of urban areas in some parts of New Zealand, and highlights the need to build resilience to this peril. The current paper focuses on the role of land-use planning in reducing wildfire risk and building resilience at the wildland-urban interface – hereafter termed wildfire planning. It identifies and recommends strategies for institutionalising wildfire planning in New Zealand. Very little scholarly attention has been focused on this topic to date and little effort has been made to institutionalise wildfire planning in New Zealand. Extensive experience in wildfire planning in Australia, called bushfire planning, can inform future wildfire planning efforts in New Zealand, given local natural hazards planning provisions and experience. We reviewed publications, plans and policy provisions related to the post-2009 Black Saturday Victorian bushfire experience, alongside insights drawn from key informant interviews. Based on these insights, we have identified barriers and enablers for institutionalising bushfire planning and distilled particular lessons. The current article follows these findings with key topics for building a wildfire planning research and practice agenda in New Zealand, concerning measures to: (1) reduce wildfire risk; (2) mobilise and integrate domains of professional practice relevant to wildfire planning; (3) develop community-based wildfire planning capability; and (4) meet the needs of current and future generations by institutionalising wildfire resilient development pathways at New Zealand’s wildland-urban interface.

Christchurch’s peri-urban wildfire management strategy: How does it measure up with international best practice?

S. Kraberger, S. Swaffield & W. McWilliam

Keywords: wildfire hazard, wildfire risk, wildfire threat, wildfire management strategies

The 2017 Christchurch Port Hills Fires were an expression of increasing peri-urban wildfire threat in NZ. Internationally, traditional response management of wildfire threat has been complemented by place-based and pre-emptive social and spatial strategies. The formal recovery plans for the Port Hills Fires highlight the emerging role of social programmes but a distinct lack of landscape-scale spatial planning in New Zealand wildfire management practice and research. Spatial dynamics have had a clear impact on the nature of the Port Hills peri-urban wildfire threat, yet the current recovery process largely reinstates the spatial patterns which heightened the risk, scale and impact of the 2017 fires.

Wildfire risk awareness, perception and preparedness in the urban fringe in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Public responses to the 2017 Port Hills wildfire

E.R. Langer & Simon Wegner

Keywords: urban fringe, rural-urban interface, risk perception, risk awareness, preparedness

Historically, most of the relatively small, but frequent wildfires that have affected communities in Aotearoa /New Zealand have occurred in rural areas. Prior to 2017, few wildfires occurred in the margins of large urban areas, or what is often referred to as the urban fringe. Reflecting this, New Zealand wildfire research has previously focussed on managing risk within communities residing in rural areas and on small holdings in the rural-urban interface. In February 2017, the Canterbury region of New Zealand suffered a devastating wildfire on the Port Hills adjoining the city of Christchurch which resulted in the loss of nine houses and the evacuation of over 1400 residents, most of whom were living on small urban fringe properties. The Port Hills wildfire highlights the growing wildfire risk in the urban fringe and the need for research to support better engagement with residents in these neighbourhoods. This paper examines news media articles, related public comments and social media responses following the Port Hills fire to understand how residents responded to and made sense of the wildfire. The findings provide a preliminary indication of: urban residents’ risk perceptions, interpretations of their personal fire experiences, social norms that shape discussion, underlying social conflicts and contexts, and their understanding of where the responsibility for actions lies. This paints a picture of a diverse public negotiating meaning through complex, often conflicting frames rather than a single homogenous community and lays the foundation for a future in-depth study of the affected neighbourhoods. The paper concludes that the time has arrived to awaken fire managers to the specific risks of wildfires on the fringe of major urban centres and ensure that they recognise that residents of the urban fringe represent a new audience with different contexts and needs. These urban residents will require more attention to ensure that residents are also awakened to the risks of wildfires and are adequately prepared for potentially devastating wildfires in the future.

The Port Hills fire and the rhetoric of lessons learned

R. Montgomery

Keywords: lessons learned; lessons management; learning legacy; elite panic; situational awareness; social media; enabling communities.

Since the Port Hills fire of February 2017, several reviews and promises of improvement have been generated from local government up to central government level. The incident was the final trigger for a government-commissioned investigation which recommended the biggest overhaul of New Zealand’s civil defence arrangements since 2002. Change is clearly required, and it has been openly acknowledged by some agencies that their response was deficient in certain respects. Through documentary analysis of reviews, reports, newspaper or media articles and social media sources, this article asks: What has changed? It questions the rhetoric of lessons learned that has accompanied such reviews especially in relation to how these two words are defined in the lessons management literature. It is argued that no integrated, shared-responsibility-focussed review, free from any pre-emptive terms of reference, has been conducted to date. Rather, government and agencies have exhibited a form of elite panic, coined by Chess and others, which has been manifested as review panic in this particular instance. The article also draws attention to the fact that the Port Hills fire was not a natural disaster. At least one fire was deliberately lit if not both. It was in effect a $30m crime which involved the loss of human life. This reality appears to have been overlooked by organisations that appear too keen to treat fire events as simply another dimension of natural hazards management rather than taking a finer-grained risk management approach. An alternative approach is signalled, especially in light of a central government policy signal released in August 2018 to introduce fly-in teams during major incidents, which could extend into creating a situational awareness group made up of local and external expertise. Opportunities and initiatives are identified for better engagement with local communities such as funding for community response plans and paying closer attention to community social media outlets.

An integrative review of the 2017 Port Hill fires' impact on animals, their owners and first responders’ encounters with the human-animal interface

H. Squance, D. M. Johnston, C. Stewart & C. B. Riley

Keywords: Animal welfare, emergency management, wildfire, 2017 Port Hills fires

Animal welfare emergency management is a critical component of modern emergency management, because the powerful bond between people and animals influences decisions and actions taken during emergency events. High risk behaviour and poor decision-making can negatively affect evacuation compliance, observance of cordons, the safety of frontline responders and the psychosocial recovery of responders and animal owners. This paper reviews documents, including official reports, peer-reviewed journal articles and media reports, concerning the impacts of the 2017 Port Hill Fires on animals, with the aim of providing direction for future research and identifying other information needs. Key themes were identified, including evacuation, cordons, animal rescue, communication and co-ordination. The implications of these for emergency management practice are discussed, including recommendations to: consider animals across all phases of wildfire management; enhance emergency responders’ understandings of animal owners’ emotional drivers; develop a national animal loss database; include animal ownership in relevant public education; leverage the human-animal bond as a motivator for mitigation and emergency preparedness; more carefully consider animal evacuation logistics, and; develop relevant wildfire response strategy.


All papers are protected under the Creative Commons attribution as per our copyright notice.

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