fall 2015

by Lisa Langer and Grace Aroha Stone

1. Fire (te ahi) has shaped New Zealand’s landscape and history.

The islands of New Zealand, or the land of the long white cloud – Aotearoa in M?ori – are found in the “Roaring Forties” of the southern Pacific Ocean. The country has a maritime climate with regional extremes largely caused by prevailing westerly winds hitting the country’s mountainous backbone, which causes a rain shadow on the western coasts then generates foehn winds that dry out eastern parts of the country.

On average, 3,000 wildfires are reported each year. People and their activities are responsible for starting more than 99% of these. A combination of fuel load, difficult terrain, and weather can make these fires very hard to bring under control in sparsely populated rural areas. The best approach to limiting wildfire damage is to prevent them from starting by focusing on fire causes – people.

A significant proportion of rural land is owned by M?ori Polynesian people whose ancestors arrived early in the 13th century. As such, their approach is likely to be affected by their traditional perspectives on land management, and the role of fire in this. The challenge for rural fire authorities is to appreciate the traditional use of fire and to work together effectively with M?ori landowners to protect the rural environment, forest, and other assets.

Before man

Before the arrival of man, most of New Zealand was covered in native forest, with tussock grasses dominating flatlands in the high country, and bracken fern (Pteridium esculentum) and m?nuka (Leptospermum scoparium) scrub growing in damper districts. Fires ignited by volcanic activities and lightning strikes were a key factor in shaping the vegetation cover. However, these events were rare and, with little exposure to fire, native New Zealand vegetation evolved few pyrogenic adaptations and is highly susceptible to fire.

M?ori arrival

The first M?ori Polynesians, arriving around 1280 AD, brought fire with them from Hawaiki (their original ‘home land’). They also brought an established fire culture stemming from mythology, with associated belief systems and rules surrounding the sacredness of fire and its uses. Traditional M?ori belief is that fires are an intrinsic part of their natural environment and connect through genealogical ties to their ancestors, Ranginui (sky father) and Papat??nuku (earth mother).

M?ori had an utmost respect of fire and considered it the most tapu (sacred) of all the four natural elements (the others being water, air and earth) in the natural world. Ethnographer Elsdon Best reported in 1924 that “M?ori had a great respect for fire, and spoke of it as a of man as he did of a house.”

The M?ori used fire as their principal tool. It was used to burn paths through densely vegetated terrain and to clear land for cultivation and to live on. Fire was used in the felling of trees to make waka (canoes) and to help with bending wood for weapons and shaping bark vessels. It was also important for the propagation and storage of crops, and for cooking in h?ng? (earth ovens) and umu (cooking with hot embers).

Post 1800 (European settlers)

When European settlers began to arrive in ever increasing numbers, bringing metal axes and saws with them to fell trees, the use of fire to clear native forest for land settlement and pasture accelerated. Combined M?ori and European activities decreased New Zealand’s forest cover from approximately 85-90% to 25% in half a millennium.

The fire activity that accompanied human settlement has left long-lasting legacies in the landscape. Widespread and sometimes permanent shifts in the composition, structure, and function of many terrestrial ecosystems have occurred. These effects have flowed to other ecosystems, for example, resulting in the expansion of grasslands and processes such as the pastoral use of fire since European arrival.

The vast majority of the wildfires reported each year are caused by human activity, but to date, no specific fires have been attributed to traditional M?ori use of fire. While most wildfires are small, at least one major forest fire (> 500 ha) occurs nationally each decade.

The risk of wildfire is only predicted to grow with climate change. Bigger and more frequent wildfires are likely as future weather variations are expected to accompany climate change – higher temperatures, increased wind speeds, and decreased rainfall means increased severity of fire seasons.

Maori village, c1909. Pataka Museum Collection, Porirua Library ref P.2.132.

Cultural uses and attitudes today

About 15% of New Zealand’s population of 4.5 million identify themselves as M?ori, and significant areas of rural land are in M?ori ownership or management. Fire is still used as a land management tool by the majority of land managers despite the inherent risk of uncontrolled wildfires. It is therefore important that rural fire authorities appreciate M?ori perspectives on land management, and the role of fire in this, so that they can work effectively with M?ori landowners to protect the rural environment, forest, and other assets, and continue to maintain the use of fire as an effective tool.

A first step in exploring M?ori cultural uses and attitudes towards fire was to interview three kaum?tua (M?ori elders). They talked about their learned knowledge of traditional fire use and their experiences of tribal use of fire as part of domestic necessities of life.

Growing up in small, rural communities, often without electricity, fire was an essential part of life. In the home it was used for cooking, heating, and light, and to heat water for baths and washing clothes. On the farm, fire was used in activities like horse shoeing, burning rubbish, and clearing land in preparation for planting or grazing by sheep, cattle etc. Today, fire is still used for warmth and comfort and as a way to get rid of rubbish. Fire also has a central and vital role in preparing traditional h?ng? food, particularly for celebrations, tangi (funerals), and other large gatherings.

A strong theme that emerged was the perception of fire compared with past and present generations has changed. Kaum?tua talked about differing cultural attitudes they experienced over their lifetime. Older generations described fire as being part of their everyday life – a basic necessity for domestic use. Tamariki (children) were taught to respect fire, and they knew it provided warmth, food, and comfort. Now, in the opinion of kaum?tua, present generations consider fire as more of a managed activity, or a threat, rather than as a tool used in customary practice.

The start of a 30,000 acre fire, lit to clear the land of bush, Pukatora Station, East Coast. Hargreaves, Frederick Ashby. Collection of photographic prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-032845-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Fire awareness and working together

Fires can be devastating for rural communities, which are often isolated with limited resources and sometimes difficult to reach. Interviewee ‘Matua’ made the point that it is necessary to be self-reliant and that the responsibility for preventing fires needs to be shared; locals should know what is going on in their community, and they should share their knowledge of fire safety with other community members. At the same time, there also need to be key local people to talk to and contact in emergencies.

M?ori need to be active participants in determining what messages and strategies will work to encourage careful use of fire in their communities. Using a combination of community and indigenous knowledge, and the natural resources available, fire managers and M?ori can work together to develop effective communication strategies that increase awareness of wildfire risk, fire safety, and wildfire preparedness.

The preliminary study of M?ori use of fire has led to a collaboration with Associate Professor, Tara McGee from University of Alberta, Edmonton. The new work focusses on experiences of a predominantly M?ori community in the Far North of New Zealand recently affected by a significant wildfire. Learning about the residents’ awareness of wildfire, use of fire, and preparedness for future wildfires will further assist fire authorities working with communities in New Zealand. The wildfire experiences of this community will also be compared with those of First Nations communities in Canada.

Hill fire. Wildland fire burning across rugged hill country.

2. Improving wildfire communication to New Zealand communities

One size does not fit all when it comes to communicating vital rural fire messages. Fire managers need to identify the messages required by different audiences and how best to communicate these.

Low fire awareness

Large wildland fires in New Zealand are rare, and most rural communities have a low awareness of fire risk and low level of preparedness for fire. This vulnerability is shared by some other countries with temperate climates, such as the Netherlands and United Kingdom (Stoof, C; Langer, E R; McMorrow, J; Oswald, B; September/October 2012. WILDFIREWorld Online: Global wildfire awareness). Wildfire magazine September/October 2012: 12). However, use of fire for land management purposes, recreation, and cooking food by traditional methods, is relatively high in New Zealand rural and wildland-urban interface (WUI) communities. Combined with an expanding WUI, changing fuels loads and climate change contributing to more severe fire seasons, there are real reasons for concern.

Public communications and education about fire currently vary widely across New Zealand. This ranges from the establishment of FireSmart community-led fire risk mitigation activities (modelled after US FireWise programs) to minimal community engagement around wildfire. A general non-targeted approach can lead to low uptake and little behaviour change when very high fire risk occurs.

Targeted messages for different audiences

Fire danger roads signs are perhaps the most visible form of communicating fire danger and risk, but they are not very effective in influencing people’s behavior and encouraging safer fire practices. Two thirds of New Zealanders and tourists interviewed in a Scion study said that the signs did not alert them to the fact that they might need to change their behavior as fire risk changed. People were also very uncertain as to what they should or shouldn’t do at fire danger levels other than low or extreme. One person in five also felt the signs didn’t apply to them!

Further work by Scion’s Rural Fire Research Group has focussed on how to communicate wildfire messages more effectively (as part of a broader Australasian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre project led by RMIT University, Melbourne).

Case studies were undertaken with three communities in rural and WUI areas in New Zealand that had experienced a wildland fire. National key fire and land managers were also interviewed.

Four audiences for wildland fire communications were identified: non-fire users; rural and semi-rural fire users; recreational users/visitors, and cultural fire users. Four distinct types of messages were also identified: general awareness of fire risk; information about fire use restrictions; ways to prevent fires starting; and how best to be prepared should a wildfire (at household, property and community levels) start. Communication needs to be targeted, with different messages tailored to suit the various audiences.

The majority of people do not use fire but, in fire prone areas, even non-fire users need communication to ensure they are aware of the risk wildfire poses to their communities and that they are prepared should a wildfire occur.

The largest group of fire users are rural and semi-rural property residents who use fire for land management. Those who have lived in rural areas for many years generally tended to have good knowledge of fire and wildfire risk awareness. Fire managers need to find ways to target people in this group to ensure they remain aware of risks, have up-to-date information about restrictions and permits, retain information on fire prevention precautions, and are prepared for wildfires. At the same time, there needs to be focus on more recent residents and those on the urban fringe.

Recreational users of fires, who are generally visitors and absentee property owners (both domestic and international), are perceived to pose significant fire danger. All three case study areas had suffered wildland fires as a result of visitors’ activities. Visitors especially appeared to lack knowledge about, or ignore, fire restrictions and have little awareness of fire risk and prevention. These are the aspects fire managers need to concentrate on.

The fourth audience identified use fire for cultural purposes, generally for cooking food by traditional methods (e.g. earthen ovens or h?ng? by M?ori). With generally good levels of knowledge around fire restrictions, awareness of fire risk, and how to prevent a h?ng? from becoming an out-of-control fire, fire managers need to ensure their messages continue to target this audience for wildfire awareness, information, prevention, and preparedness.

Towards greater awareness

Effective wildfire communication is a process that ensures that the correct messages are delivered in the most appropriate way for individuals and communities: to understand, and act on, the risks of wildfire; to prevent wildfires from occurring from their use of fire; and to be prepared for wildfire events. It is most effective when relevant messages are targeted at each specific audience, and careful consideration is given to message communication.

Scion is working with rural fire managers to develop communication strategies for the different fire user groups, especially those people living on the outskirts of towns and visitors who need to know the fire danger in their immediate vicinity. Methods of communication can include one-way broadcast methods, messages directed through conduits, and an increasing use of two-way dialogue to allow more effective face-to-face communication with individuals and community groups.

This work has shown that a universal approach is not effective in communicating fire messages. Rural fire and bushfire agencies throughout Australasia are using the research findings to more accurately target their fire user and non-fire user audiences, tailor their messages and tune their methods of communication to be more effective in communicating with members of rural and rural-urban communities as well as visitors to these areas.


Scion and Scion’s Rural Fire Research Group

Scion’s Rural Fire Research Group is New Zealand’s only provider of specialist fire research expertise in rural and forest landscapes. Research carried out by the group assists rural fire authorities with rural fire management and fire mitigation responsibilities. The group is part of Scion, New Zealand’s Crown research institute that undertakes research, science, and technology development in forestry, wood products, biomaterials, and bioenergy.

Lisa Langer has led Scion’s social fire research since 2003, focussing on community resilience and recovery following wildfires, fire danger warning communication, fire insurance, and mitigating the risk of human-caused fires. Recently she completed a contract for the Bushfire CRC leading the New Zealand component of the Effective Communication fire warnings and preparedness project. She has presented her research at international fire conferences in the US and Europe, as well as to Australian and New Zealand audiences. For more information, contact Lisa Langer [email protected]. The original work can be accessed here: http://tinyurl.com/maori-use-of-fire

Grace Aroha Stone, Ng?ti T?wharetoa was employed as a M?ori intern student, at Scion, Rotorua between November 2012 and March 2014, to work on the study of M?ori use of fire with Lisa Langer. Grace has a Bachelor of Iwi Environmental Management from Te Whare W?nanga O Aotearoa, Rotorua.