All the efforts of the Friends can be ruined in minutes by fire.

Gorse, where it is predominant or even partially mixed-in, forms a severe fire hazard.

Close to residential areas (as is the case here) the likelihood of accidental or deliberately-lit fires is an annual worry.

The destruction has been widespread over recent years, giving regeneration setbacks of 10 years at a time, and further damaging the remnants of mature trees.

Experience has shown that much damage will be done before helicopters with buckets can arrive.  Usually their priority is residences and power lines rather than forest.

Fire in the gorse

Fire on gorse-covered hillside 2003

Fire in the gorse

Fire on gorse-covered hillside 2003

See the "after fire" photo and press article about the fires in 2003.

Green Firebreaks

Green Firebreaks Plan: trackside planting

Green Firebreaks Plan: trackside planting

After the devastating fire of March 2003 – more than 25 hectares were completely destroyed – the Committee knew we needed a way not only to restore the burnt area but to prevent it from ever happening again.

John Hodges, whose work in this valley since the 1970’s earned him a Conservation Award from DOC, came up with a well thought out Plan we could follow.  (See the press article about John and his award.)

It consisted of clearing two strips right across the restoration area, at least 20 metres wide – more if possible.  These strips were to be completely cleared of gorse (conveniently now all burnt), then sprayed to prevent regrowth.  Then it should be densely planted with hardy native trees, those that grow most quickly.

The lower one was to run south of the two schools and the Lakes Reserve (where most fires begin) – right to the Creek, a distance of some 500 metres.  The upper one was to protect the western edge of the Cannons Creek Conservation Covenant, running from its northern tip on the Maara Roa track, south to the old farm gate, then west down the Takapu Track as far as the bridge over Cannons Creek, also roughly 500 metres.

We started also to use tree lucerne, at Greater Wellington’s suggestion, as a faster-growing nurse crop, as we soon discovered these burned, north-facing slopes were subject to the prevailing winds, hot and dry in the summers, and had little soil left to sustain young trees.  They badly needed shade and shelter to survive.

In addition, the Green Firebreaks Plan included dense planting up the sides of the Maara Roa and Takapu tracks.  We had seen how the fire raced up the slopes.  First it was on the dry grass at the edge of the tracks, then it caught the dry matter under the gorse, latched on to the gorse itself – at each stage getting hotter and fiercer – till it began to destroy even the mature trees on the edge of the bush.

So it was clearly important to prevent gorse and grass growth wherever fires could be carried up the tracks, in the reach of passers-by.  Spraying and dense planting of a 5 – 10 metres width on each side of the public track, as well as on the Firebreak strips, would establish evergreen natives.  These would resist fire and eventually permit little grass or gorse growth because of their shade.

Since 2003 we have followed this Plan strenuously, planting most of our average of 5000 trees per year to achieve its completion.  By 2010 we have virtually finished it, though infill planting continues to be needed due to the harsh conditions.

Have we won?  Could there be another bad fire?

Though there are still huge areas of re-grown gorse where the burn was, these "green firebreaks" create a buffer zone between the public plus gorse (= fire danger) and the precious remnants of real forest.  Not bare and ugly like old-style firebreaks, they immediately improve the trackside view, and the plantings are well on the way to the day when we can say, "We have won the battle".

It's not quite there yet – some vulnerable areas need to be fenced off from stock before they are replanted – but, to date, the Green Firebreaks Plan has done more than anything else to achieve successful protection and save the one-time dying forest remnants.

Thanks John: brilliant.