Research helping New Zealand prepare for the new reality of extreme wildfires

The Extreme Wildfire Programme, led by Scion, demonstrates excellence and impact for understanding and preparing New Zealand for the expected increase in wildfires due to climate change.

Fire researcher standing in front of a wildfire writing notes on a clipboard

The Endeavour Research Programme began in October 2021 and brings together international and local experts to help better understand how extreme wildfires spread and behave in New Zealand’s unique ecological and social environment.

Fire Ecologist Shana Gross believes it is critical that New Zealand is proactive in this area so we learn how to better live with natural threats.

“We know it’s coming. We know that there’s going to be more extreme wildfires in the future and so the aim of our research is to understand what we can do to be prepared for that,” she said.

The research programme has 5 workstreams:

  1. experimental burns to understand extreme fires and convective spread
  2. using field data and models to understand how fire moves between urban fuels (such as houses and vegetation)
  3. assessing national and local level fire planning
  4. utilising personal experience, including Mātauranga Māori and laboratory experiments to better understand how native forests burn
  5. developing a roadmap for smart firefighting.

Ms Gross said one of the most exciting elements of the research for her is the experimental burns.

“Fire is exciting. I've never heard anyone say, ‘I don't want to go see that fire’. Our recent experimental burns have focused on making fire whirls and in previous and future burns we're looking at convective versus radiative fire spread.

“By understanding how fire moves and some of the external factors we can better improve our fire behaviour models and make better predictions,” she said.

Another positive of the experimental burns has been providing Fire and Emergency New Zealand and volunteer firefighters on the ground incident experience and increasing public awareness.

Ms Gross is also excited about the roadmap for smart firefighting workstream, which she said is taking a unique approach.

“The focus is on developing tools for on-the-ground firefighting. We did a series of interviews with decision makers and fire managers asking them, ‘What do you need?’.

“There’s often tool development from upper levels, which may be disconnected from field realities, or it may not factor in how new equipment works.

“One of our lead researchers in the tool development space, Richard Parker, is also a firefighter. This unique perspective allows him to engage directly with people who have these innovative ideas that might otherwise go unnoticed,” she said.

Ms Gross said Government support through the Endeavour Fund has been essential to the programme’s success so far.

“This research wouldn’t happen without Government support, and it is so important because it's about keeping our lives, livelihoods, and properties safe.

“Government funding allows us to work with international partners and adapt what’s learned overseas, but also focus on things that are unique to New Zealand itself so that we're effectively preparing for the future,” she said.

The project runs until October 2026, and Ms Gross said there is a lot more exciting work to come, including more experimental burns.

“We’ve also built a strong Mātauranga Māori component where we convened a group called Te Kauahi to help guide us on where research could go next. We will hold more hui and work with that group to make sure that this work is really applied,” she said.