One hot Monday afternoon in February 2017, two wildfires several kilometres apart broke out on the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand’s biggest South Island city. The fires combined into one large blaze and raged across the hills above the city for 66 days before they were finally extinguished.
During the blaze, a helicopter, helping to fight the fires, crashed causing the death of the pilot. Nine houses were destroyed, a further two were significantly damaged, and hundreds of residents were evacuated.
Multiple agencies managed the fires: the New Zealand Fire Service, the National Rural Fire Authority, Christchurch City Council, Selwyn District Council, the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Defence Force.
Post-fire reviews found a lack of coordination between these agencies contributed to the Port Hills fires’ destruction.
At the time, work was already underway to replace the more than 40 firefighting organisations that had served New Zealand communities for over 150 years.
The Port Hills fires experience confirmed the good sense of this amalgamation, and in July 2017 Fire and Emergency New Zealand was established, New Zealand’s first unified national firefighting organisation.
Nearly two years after the Port Hills fire, in February 2019, a farmer discing in his paddock near Nelson at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, sparked a fire in his paddock. It quickly spread and went on to burn over 2,300 hectares including significant areas of pine plantation over the next two months.
At the fire’s peak, Fire and Emergency New Zealand deployed 23 helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, 23 heavy machines and more than 150 firefighters.
The Australian and New Zealand National Council for fire and emergency services (AFAC) Report into the fire stated that even though this was a significant fire, the affected communities were complimentary of the way Fire and Emergency managed this fire.
This showed that within 20 months of standing up a new organisation, Fire and Emergency was able to mobilise people from around the country and deliver a coordinated response for a large-scale incident.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand – the first unified national firefighting organisation
When New Zealand’s first unified national firefighting organisation was established, it brought 14,000 firefighters and over 40 separate firefighting organisations together to service New Zealand’s firefighting and emergency needs.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s Chief Executive Rhys Jones says the Port Hills fire clearly demonstrated the need to have a unified firefighting organisation with centralised command at large-scale, long-duration events such as the Port Hills fire. ‘The new organisation consolidated urban and rural firefighting operations under one umbrella. For more than 150 years, fire service organisations have played a pivotal role in New Zealand communities, protecting and preserving life and property.
‘But for most of the country’s history, fire services were funded and managed locally, mostly by volunteers. There was little central coordination, resulting in significant variation between local fire services.
‘Unifying what we do at Fire and Emergency and making sure our support to communities is consistent has been a big focus for the organisation over the last four years.’
The organisation is also driven to help people across New Zealand reduce the risk of fire across the country. Rhys Jones says: ‘Both in the built and natural environment there are everyday ways people can reduce risks around where they live, work and play. It is important people understand what they can do, with our support to make their communities safer. We have an important opportunity and responsibility to engage, educate and promote risk reduction in our local communities.’
Fire and Emergency has also spent a significant amount upgrading its resources. Rhys Jones continues: ‘We are creating a consistent level of service to New Zealand communities, including upgrading our fleet, and building new fire stations or refurbishing them around the country.
‘Firefighting can be difficult and dangerous, and we take safety of our own personnel extremely seriously. We provide our firefighters with full personal protection equipment (PPE) suitable for the environments they work in and they follow strict protocols and procedures in potentially toxic situations. We continuously seek to improve protection for all our firefighters, volunteer and career.
‘And that isn’t only physical protection. For years now, the proportion of fire call-outs has been reducing compared to other incidents, and this will continue to be the case. We are attending more vehicle crashes, medical call-outs and incidents involving hazardous materials.
‘Our firefighters do a remarkable job of protecting life, property and our environment. We recognise that responding to emergencies such as medical call-outs and vehicle crashes can be as psychologically demanding as it is physically. That’s why we have developed confidential, free counselling, professional psychological support, peer support, dedicated safety, health and wellbeing advisors and welfare officers, a health monitoring programme, chaplaincy, and tikanga Māori-based services. Counselling is also available to immediate family members for any reason that they see fit.’
Unifying Fire and Emergency’s structure to better support communities
In September 2021, Fire and Emergency took a major step as a unified organisation, by having its natural and built environment fire management reporting lines amalgamated. This was done through the creation of 17 new Districts across the country.
‘Getting all the different firefighting setups working together as one national organisation has been necessary,’ Rhys Jones says. ‘This is a big step in our people developing their skill sets and knowledge in all areas of fire management.’
The new Districts replace 24 urban areas and 18 rural fire districts across the country. The rural districts and urban areas overlapped.
Before the new structure Fire and Emergency maintained a similar leadership structure to its predecessors. Area managers led urban-focused brigades and stations, and principal rural fire officers led rurally focused brigades.
Under the new structure, all brigades and stations sit together as one unified district under their respective newly appointed District managers.
The Districts were designed to align with local government and Civil Defence boundaries, to ensure integration and alignment of plans and capabilities.
‘No two Districts face the same risks or have the same response profiles,’ Jones says.
The 17 Districts are grouped into five Fire and Emergency Regions whose role is to coordinate and support their Districts to serve their communities.
‘Our Regions play a pivotal role in resourcing, planning and ensuring our people on the ground at District level can do what is needed to support those living in their Districts. The five Regions means we can respond to and coordinate multiple large-scale events across the country, if they were to occur at the same time,’ Jones says. ‘Our new structure enables us to continue to respond to those emergencies as one national unified management organisation to work with communities to keep them safe.’
He says while Fire and Emergency is happy to have its new structure in place to better support New Zealand communities, there is still plenty of work to do to ensure it can continue to serve people in New Zealand to a high standard.
A challenge for Fire and Emergency is reflecting the changing face of firefighting and the work its people do around Aotearoa (New Zealand).
As well as increasing risk reduction initiatives and supporting our communities to become more resilient, the organisation also takes climate change into account and the subsequent increase in challenges that entails.
‘Our fire seasons are becoming longer, now stretching from September/October through to March/April, and the sort of fires we are attending are becoming more intense and are occurring closer to populated areas,’ Rhys Jones says.
He says the number of long-duration campaign natural environment fires is also increasing.
‘As fires become more intense and more frequent, increased pressure goes on our resources and people responding to fires. As a national unified organisation, we have the capability to move resources around New Zealand. This ensures if there is a big event, we can deploy personnel from other Regions and Districts, as well as bring in more resources such as fire trucks from around the local District and, if we need to, other parts of the country.
‘During the July (2021) flooding event on the West Coast of the South Island, we brought fire trucks and career crews across from Christchurch and Timaru on the East Coast of the South Island.’
The Lake Ōhau fire in Canterbury’s McKenzie Basin in October 2020 destroyed 48 homes and buildings, and damaged 5,043 hectares of land, making it one of New Zealand’s most significant wildfires in recent history. It took nine days to completely put out the fire. At the peak of the fire there were 11 helicopters and more than 100 people deployed to support the response.
‘Fire and Emergency deployed crews from as far away as Southland (at the bottom of the South Island) and support personnel from as far away as Auckland to battle that blaze,’ Rhys Jones says. ‘Fortunately, no lives were lost thanks to the quick actions from residents of the Lake Ōhau Alpine Village who enacted the community’s wildfire plan, and the swift response and evacuations by the Twizel and Omarama Volunteer Fire Brigades working to their plan.
‘Recognising the wildfire risk, we had been working with the Lake Ōhau community for more than 20 years to develop a wildfire plan. Fire and Emergency will continue to support this community and others with high fire risk to plan their wildfire response and evacuation plans.’
For more information, go to fireandemergency.nz