Aerial firefighting costs blow out after massive blazes

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An increasing number of severe fires has forced Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) to expand its aerial firefighting budget by more than $3 million.

A helicopter takes part in the fight against the Lake Ohau fire

Battling a blaze at Lake Ōhau has added to higher costs for aerial firefighting. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Several major fires requiring intensive firefighting efforts from the air meant the initial $6.7m annual budget set by Fenz was surpassed in three months.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show one of the largest vegetation fires in New Zealand, the Lake Ōhau blaze last October, cost more than $1.2m.

The cause of the fire, which destroyed about 50 homes and more than 5000ha, has not been released.

The vast majority, $702,000, was spent on aerial firefighting.

Fifteen helicopters spent 261 hours fighting the fire, and three fixed-wing aircraft were deployed for 15 hours.

Fenz deputy chief executive Raewyn Bleakley said while most of its funding came from a levy on fire insurance, aerial firefighting services were funded by the national rural fire suppression budget.

The fire suppression budget for the 2020-21 financial year was set at $6.753m, and a large portion was expected to be spent on aerial services.

At the end of October 2020, it was about $1.9m over budget, and Fenz had since adjusted it to be about $10m, Bleakley said.

“This reflects the changing climate in New Zealand with dry conditions resulting in a longer fire season.

“Protecting life, property, and the environment is our top priority and our spend directly relates to the firefighting needs at individual incidents.”

Fenz recently introduced a national “open panel” contracts system for using aircraft operators, including provision of payment for aircraft on official standby.

“These systems allow for greater use of aircraft at incidents, not lesser, and recognise changes to the scope of aircraft-related work we are now required to undertake.

“The partnership we have with the general aviation sector is extremely important in responding to wildfires and other emergencies.”

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Figures also revealed the 618ha fire in October last year at Livingstone, in Waitaki, cost more than $420,000 to tackle.

Of this total figure, $267,000 was spent on 12 helicopters used for 96.7 hours.

It was possible costs for the two fires could increase as further invoices were received.

Lake Ōhau fire costs

  • Hire of aerial services $702,214
  • External firefighting services $65,586
  • Employee payments $167,820
  • Volunteer payments $112,861
  • Plant and equipment $66,029
  • Foam/retardant $52,203
  • Travel, accommodation and meals $49,991
  • Incident catering $46,841
  • Fuel $1188
  • Other costs $4643
  • Total $1,269,376

This story first appeared on the Otago Daily Times website.


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