Urban fires can be caused maliciously, by accident, or as the result of an unforeseen ignition for example by an electrical, mechanical, or chemical process. Fires may also result of a natural cause such as earthquakes or lightning. As Hawke’s Bay has a hot, Mediterranean-style climate, the region experiences days of extreme fire danger every summer and large fires have been recorded in the region as early as the late 1800’s. In such conditions it is possible to have a large number of fires occur in a short period over a wide suburban area, so that all Fire Service resources fully committed and overwhelmed presenting the risk of fires spreading destroying homes. These risks mean there could be many casualties and loss of life.
A large fire threatens homes in Fernhill, April 2007
Most of our fires occur in the kitchen due to cooking carelessness, like unattended cooking, and often rubbish fires are left unattended, spreading to vegetation and ultimately to property. While living in a city may not increase the risk of fire, demographic changes including the growing numbers of older adults, people with disabilities, immigrants and people living in poverty may impact fire safety in the city.
Another problem is urban areas are often located close to manufacturing and primary production as Hawke’s Bay has extension horticultural production, food processing industries with factories and cool stores.
The New Zealand Fire Service has the day-to-day responsibility for managing and responding to urban fires and they are the lead agency in a major event. Its powers are provided for in the Fire Service Act and they are specifically equipped to carry out this function.
There have been numerous large urban fires in Hawke’s Bay in the past.
The 1931 earthquake is the worst urban fire in the history of Hawke’s Bay, as following the shaking, fires subsequently engulfed the damaged areas, leaving only a few recently built reinforced concrete buildings standing. Although its wooden housing stock was relatively undamaged, the fires in the business district began in chemists' shops where gas jets were in close proximity to flammable liquids. One hour after the earthquake, the fires were spreading rapidly. Fires also broke out at Ahuriri. In Napier, the water supply was lost and there was little that firemen could do. In Hastings, the water supply remained intact so the fires were contained.
There have been many urban fires since, such as the massive fire which broke out on 18 January 2012 which has destroyed a fruit packaging factory and forced the evacuations of nearby homes. The blaze broke out around 9pm at Hawk Packaging on Tomoana Road, Hastings and burned for 200 metres. Flames could be seen from Napier. More than 80 firefighters, from as far away as Palmerston North, Dannevirke and Woodville responded to the callout. While in this event, firefighters were able to prevent the fire spreading into the adjoining industrial estate and protected homes, the risks of a huge fire like this in the future including the large amount of hot embers being airborne presents significant risk in our urban areas.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Remember early intervention is critical in all fires, most start small and escalate, events caught early with appropriate responses will be easier to control or contain. The New Zealand Fire Service relies on people letting them know immediately things go wrong, calling them as soon as incidents are noticed.