Preventing and responding to wildfires: what you can do.

Department of Conservation —  07/03/2023

Do you feel like you’ve seen more reports of fires out in nature over the past few years? You aren’t wrong – larger, more intense wildfires are on the rise in New Zealand.

2019 Pigeon Valley fire 📷: DOC

Fire and Emergency New Zealand was called to more than 4,400 wildfires between 1 July 2021 and 27 June 2022. The impacts of climate change are increasing the risk of wildfire for many parts of the country, and unfortunately, we are likely to see more fires over the coming years.

More fires mean more chance of people being caught in them. If you are camping, tramping or biking over the summer period (especially in areas with high fire danger), it’s important to be aware of what to do in a wildfire and how to protect yourself.

Of course, the best way to stay safe in a fire is to avoiding starting one in the first place. There are likely to be fire bans and restrictions over summer, so if you are considering lighting a fire visit to see whether it’s allowed.

Never light a fire during a fire ban and if in doubt, skip it altogether. Plan meals that can be served cold or use a gas cooker rather than lighting a campfire. Learn more about where fires are allowed on the DOC website.

Result of a wildfire 📷: DOC

However, if you do encounter a fire on public conservation land, our fire team has shared some tips for what to do. While it can be scary to imagine being stuck in a fire, knowing what to do will increase your chances of survival.

  1. Head away from the fire as fast as possible and call 111. This one probably goes without saying but do everything you can to escape the fire. Don’t go closer, instead turn back or leave by another route. Never try and go nearer to get a closer look or a photo. Sheltering in place is only an absolute last resort – if you can get away, do so. Don’t try to carry gear that will slow you down.
    If you have reception phone 111 and report the fire.
  2. Go downhill (unless that is towards the fire). Fire travels faster going uphill, so it’s best to make your escape downhill or across a slope. That will give you more time to get away. Avoid hilltops or ridges if you can because this is where the intensity of the fire will be most severe.
  3. Stay away from grass and scrub areas, try to find a road or a clearing. Grass and scrub (like manuka and gorse) burn very fast, which means the fire will travel quickly. Where possible, avoid these areas.
  4. Shelter in the water (for example, a lake, the sea or a stream). If you can get to water, crouch or lie in it (if you can safely do so – don’t get swept away by the currents).
  5. Remove flammable material and shield yourself from the fire’s heat. If you can’t escape from the fire, do what you can to prepare for it to pass you. Find as clear an area as possible (a road or a clearing are best) and remove as much flammable material as possible from around you. The biggest risk during a wildfire is radiant heat – the extreme heat that comes off the fire (rather than the flames themselves). Try and shield yourself from the heat by finding a big rock or bank to hide behind. You can also shelter in a hollow in the ground or behind a fallen log. Drink water and cover your mouth with a damp cloth to protect yourself from the smoke.

2019 Pigeon Valley fire 📷: DOC