A wetlands fire in New Zealand, and how it relates to us in B.C.

Firefighters battle the Southland blaze. Image source: http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/news/7973096/Fire-still-burning

This week, a large fire destroyed more than 400 hectares of the internationally recognized Waituna Wetlands Scientific Reserve, located in the Southland Region of New Zealand.

The massive fire lasted for nearly 24 hours, and destroyed mature manuka trees (Leptospermum scoparium) and a variety of important wetland plants. Birds and skinks were lost in the blaze, but the total damage done to the area and its far-reaching impact won’t be determined until workers are able to access the wetland. The fragile environment of Waituna Wetlands Scientific Reserve is critical to wildlife: covering approximately 20,000 hectares, the reserve is one of the largest wetland complexes in New Zealand. It is home to more than 80 species of birds, and 16 species of uncommon plants.

25 firefighters and 3 equipped helicopters fought the blaze from Monday to Tuesday evening, and remained on-site for an additional 2 days to check the perimeters. Although the fire was extensive, it was extinguished in a shorter time period than similar ones in the past; assistance was provided by a high water table in the region, the direct result of a wetter-than-average October.

Although the cause of the fire remains unknown, substantial peat had accumulated beneath the surface vegetation and contributed to the size and spread of the blaze. Peat refers to an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation, with one of the most common components being Sphagnum moss. Forming primarily in wetland conditions, peat poses a major threat as it has a high carbon content and smolders when ignited. Such characteristics allow the fires to often go unnoticed for extended periods of time, while releasing devastating amounts of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

So, while this event is devastating, one question remains: how does this relate to us in British Columbia? Peat is abundant in British Columbian wetlands, putting our local wetlands at risk for similar fires. One look at Burns Bog and we can understand why this is important. Occupying a quarter of Delta, Burns Bog is the largest domed peat bog on the west coast of North America. Beyond providing an ecosystem for a variety of flora and fauna, the bog plays a major role in the regulation of the region’s climate. Similar to the Waituna Wetlands Scientific Reserve, Burns Bog often experiences a blaze every few years. If the intent is to extinguish the fire then such a phenomenon can be troublesome. Similarly, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can be equally as endangering.

However, there is positive side to the story: fires in wetlands can be beneficial as well. Peat fires are a sustaining force as they clear out the accumulated brush and aid in the control of invasive plants (such as highbush blueberry). Although it is important to control the blazes and keep them contained in the wetlands, it is equally important to educate ourselves about the causes and impacts these fires can have!

An important message to take away from this… these fires are the result of natural cycles, not human actions! Lets make sure we do our part by being conscious around wetlands by understanding the important role they play in the environment and being sure to avoid accidentally causing a fire!

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