Fire and Environmental Changes

Last week a fire went through the little town of Ohau and destroyed about 40 homes. Some other homes have survived, with varying degrees of heat damage, but the destroyed ones are simply reduced to heaps of ash, with lumps of fractured concrete and bits of metal. Various photographs show devastation where you cannot even distinguish where the sections were, or where the houses were, except for the odd place where there was a burnt-out car frame, and you can probably assume there was a residence there. And this is not even the fire season. Strangely enough, the fire completely burnt out a narrow strip alongside the lake, but further away, the “non-scenic, non prime” properties were largely unaffected. There was a very strong wind blowing at the time, and presumably it was blowing towards the lake. Further away from the town there are large areas that are burnt out and over six thousand hectares was obliterated in a very few days.

So, you may think, the effects of global warming striking home. I would think not. Two weeks previously there was another fire nearby, but it was soon extinguished by a major snowstorm. A major snowstorm around the spring equinox is not exactly unusual, but with that sort of weather present we can hardly blame global warming for the fires.  Obviously something else was responsible. In my opinion, environmentalists.

That probably needs a simple explanation. What has happened is there is a fairly large area that local farmers had used for free grazing, but the city environmentalists, members of the Green Party, were shouting out, “No, you must preserve native species growing there. They don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and anyway, why should farmers get free grazing?” Now, is that valid or misuse of political influence. (We have MMP as a form of government, and the small Green contingent is part of the present government.)

So surely it is reasonable to preserve a unique environment? First, it is true that there are native plants there that are not found in other countries. But the predominant vegetation is NOT unique native species. Humans have seriously changed the area, and most people do not know what it was like originally. The vegetation has been altered by an infestation of wilding pines and a number of other shrubby introduced species that got out of control. 

The problem with such introduced plants is that the scrubby ones die, and unless something is done with them, they stand there, dessicated, and become excellent fuel for fires. This land was declared conservation land, but then the Conservation Department did nothing with it to get rid of the potential fuel. The argument was, the area was simply too big. They had bitten off far more than they could chew. In that case, they badly needed to let farmers graze the area. One characteristic of well-grazed land is most of that shrubbery is eaten, and the inedible ones are removed by farmers. The “they shouldn’t have free grazing” is just envy, while, “The animals might eat native plants” is correct, but this fire hardly left them intact. Failure to have some control, like grazing, over this shrubbery was simply making fuel for a fire.

The real question is, what are we trying to preserve? Humans have changed the environment. It may be reasonable to try and protect modest areas in their original form, if you can find any, but the great bulk of the area needs to be permitted to evolve, and if humans have done something to alter it, they must permit corrective action to stop phenomena like fires. Conservation is all very well, if what you are conserving is worth while, but why conserve an area of miscellaneous scrub mainly comprising plats that were never there three hundred years ago?


2 thoughts on “Fire and Environmental Changes

  1. I gather NZ’s environment has been drastically altered since European settlement, so what you say makes sense. Removal of fuel materials is necessary to prevent destructive fires. And no landscape remains unchanged indefinitely. I can nevertheless sympathize with those trying to preserve the few remnants of plants that have nearly disappeared.

    • Yes, but in general the native plants are not disappearing, although they may be on pasture, say. But there are many regions where they are still there, except they have to compete with “imported” plants.

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