The Nature Conservancy! Our fire lead Margit Bucher and coastal fire manager Angie Carl traveled with the Conservancy’s Director of Fire Operations Blane Heumann to New Zealand’s South Island in mid-December. We sat down with them to find out why:
► What were two long-time North Carolina staffers doing in New Zealand?
Angie: Fire management in New Zealand has recently been allocated to one organization, FENZ (Fire and Emergency New Zealand). As you can imagine, combining multiple fire agencies brings growing pains, so the government research organization Scion was awarded a grant to help with the transition. Scion invited the Conservancy to share our expertise in prescribed fire training and operational experience. We helped facilitate a workshop with New Zealand agencies and stakeholders to design a plan for training and outreach needs.
Margit: Our Chapter has one of the Conservancy’s most active controlled burn programs, working with a good safety record in a range of habitats and fuel types. Before joining Scion, Tara Strand conducted smoke management research with our Sandhills fire manager Mike Norris in North Carolina in the early 2000s. As smoke management and controlled burns issues surfaced during the streamline to FENZ, Tara secured funding to bring our expertise in fire management to her new home.
► As you mentioned, we do a lot of controlled burning in North Carolina. But fire management is so site specific. What are some differences between fire behavior and fire goals in New Zealand and those here?
Angie: In North Carolina, our forests depend on fire for biodiversity and structure. They’re what we call fire dependent. Controlled burning in New Zealand is about agriculture. It’s used to control invasive species, provide ideal grazing habitat, clean up fields post-harvest, and burn piles of debris for land clearing and other activities. Their wildfires are mostly human caused, and are a problem with rare species and other plant communities that have not adapted to tolerate fire.
Margit: New Zealand’s wildlands have historically experienced very little fire. So, unlike in North Carolina, most of their native rare plants and animals are not fire adapted. It’s a different approach. Using fire as a management tool in New Zealand seems most appropriate in lands that are managed or already altered or cultivated.
► With that said, are there any similarities?
Margit: Like anywhere in the world, both have grass, shrub and pinelands that are very flammable when dry. There’s a similar need for smoke to be managed to minimize impact on people and visibility. And in both places, we’re seeing wildfires stem from human ignitions and the size and number of wildfires are increasing.
Angie: Large urban areas are an active factor in both places. Smoke and air quality are important issues for public health and safety and tourism and agriculture are big industries. Also, with global climate change there is and will continue to be concern for wildfire growth and potential.
► What would you like North Carolinians to know about New Zealand?
Angie: The Conservancy’s New Zealand program is one of our newest. It started in 2016 and is largely focused on marine fisheries. Our visit brought a new angle to the Conservancy’s presence in NZ and built partnerships. With the changing climate and ecosystems adapting to that change, there’s going to be an ever-increasing need for fire expertise and knowledge sharing.
Margit: Our North Carolina expertise was one part of a big picture. Blane brought a key international perspective to the trip, drawing on the Conservancy’s fire work in Asia and Australia to shape the conversations we were having in New Zealand. It was “One Conservancy” in action.
On top of that, it’s a beautiful country with very friendly, open people. It is a great place to visit, although driving on the left side of the road does take some adjustment…
► What is something you’ll remember from your visit?
Margit: We visited a site working to control invasive lodge pole pines (‘wilding pine’) in Twizel (pictured). We discussed challenges and management options with staff from Scion, the agency that invited us, the private landowner, and his staff. I have even more respect and concern for introducing non-native plants to a landscape for management reasons after that meeting. Plants can behave very differently and much more aggressively in their new locale than in their native habitat.
Angie: The Kiwis (New Zealanders) are warm and welcoming. The landscape is beautiful. There are fields and fields of lupines blooming along the countryside. The glacier fed lakes are stunningly cerulean. The lavender fields are breathtaking. The invasive problem seems on par with Florida and Hawaii. The only native mammal to the islands is a bat. This is a wonderful place with a complex ecological history.