Relations between ‘Urban’ and ‘Rural’ Fire


As after‑dinner speaker at the FRFANZ Conference, former NZFS National Commander and Chief Executive, Brian Armstrong, gave his personal view of the relationship between urban and rural fire protection over the years.


The Fire Service Act tells us that an urban area is one which is used for commercial, industrial, or residential purposes, and is included in a Fire District. Any area not in a Fire District is rural. Although fire may not appreciate the difference, and people affected by fire may not understand the subtlety of the distinction, as you all know, the manner in which a fire is dealt with does vary depending on where it occurs. This has always been the case.


We are told that the Polynesians brought the knack of lighting fires with them to this country, and destroyed nearly half the forests in both islands before the arrival of the Europeans. Not only did they devastate the forests, they killed off many species of birdlife and triggered the onset of sand dunes in many parts of the country. The results were disastrous, and the Europeans enthusiastically continued this desecration on their arrival. As the land was settled, little was done to combat vegetation fires. On the other hand, as towns were built, simple precautions were taken to prevent and control fires in buildings.


As early as the 1840's restrictions were placed on some building materials, and voluntary bucket brigades were formed to protect communities. Some insurance cornpanies provided firefighting equipment for local use, and later volunteer fire brigades were formed. After a false start in 1906, a Fire Brigades Act was finally passed in 1907. This was the first piece of legislation devoted entirely to fire brigades in New Zealand. The Act provided for the funding of brigades and set up the first Fire Boards in the larger centres. Local councils administered their brigades in the smaller towns. There was heated debate even then as to who should pay for the fire service. The Act was updated in 1926, and subsequently replaced with the Fires Services Act in 1949.


Meanwhile in the rural scene, the Counties had some general responsibility for fire protection, but it was not until the Forest and Rural Fires Act was passed in 1947 that their responsibilities were clearly spelt out. The 1947 Act was passed following serious fires in the Taupo area the year before; fires which were allowed to burn unhindered for days, because no‑one would accept responsibility for dealing with them. The land on which the fires occurred was literally no‑man's land. There was no local authority and few owners, other than the Crown. After many days of sporadic, unco‑ordinated and largely ineffectual firefighting effort, the Government put Tom Reid, a senior officer of the Wellington Fire Brigade, in charge of firefighting operations. The fires were eventually brought under control by the combined efforts of hundreds of forest workers, firefighters, armed forces personnel and volunteers.


In 1949, the Fire Services Act was passed. It established the Fire Service Council responsible for developing the urban Fire Service and overseeing the functions of Urban Fire Authorities. The Act created three classes of urban Fire District: United Urban Fire Districts, Urban Fire Districts, and Secondary Urban Fire Districts. Fire Boards controlled the United Districts and the larger Fire Districts. A committee of the local Borough or County Council acted as the urban fire authority for the others. The 1949 Act did a lot for rural NZ by establishing Secondary Districts in small communities, and the number of registered volunteer fire brigades nearly doubled over the next few years as a consequence. It also authorised urban fire authorities to make agreements with local authorities for the protection of rural areas. These areas were designated Protected Areas and resulted in the formation of Fire Brigade Auxillary Units where the areas to be protected were too far from an existing fire station.


Although established in accordance with the Fire Services Act, many Counties saw these arrangements satisfying their obligations under the Forest and Rural Fires Act, and were quite upset to see their assets transferred to the Fire Service Commission as part of the national Fire Service some years later [1976]. Between them, the Fire Services Act and the Forest and Rural Fires Act regulated fire protection for urban and rural New Zealand for many years. While the Fire Service Council administered the Fire Services Act, the Forest and Rural Fires Act was administered by the NZ Forest Service.  The Forest Service adopted a very benevolent attitude to all fire authorities and fire brigades, both urban and rural. It willingly provided equipment, advice and hands‑on firefighting, assistance whenever the need arose.


On one occasion we were pretty stretched with a fire in Taupo. As the senior officer, I sought assistance from the Fire Services's Regional Fire Officer in Rotorua, only to he told that the Rotorua brigade was too busy to help, and that the nearest brigade at Tokaanu had only one fireman available, and he didn't want to come. The answer to a request to the Ministry of Works Brigade at Atiamuri was that they would like to help, but couldn't come without the approval of the Fire Chief at Mangakino, and he was away. A call to Kaiangaroa Fire Control produced several forestry fire engines, tankers and crews in next to no time. The fire involved twenty‑odd properties.


The Taupo Fire Brigade, like many others, established an excellent working relationship with the Forest Service which was to last for many years, with the Brigade responding to all calls in the surrounding area, and notifying Forest Service of the details of any calls in their area. If necessary, the forestry crews would take over the firefighting, letting the local volunteers get back to their work. Equipment was inter‑changeable, and often after a fire was taken away by Forestry staff and later returned to us fully serviced. I found the experience of working with the Forest Service to be invaluable in later years.


Relations between urban and rural authorities were not always as neighbourly.


In 1962, I joined the Wanganui Fire Brigade. I recall being turned out to fires beyond the city limits on several occasions. I say 'several' occasions because it wasn't all that common. The first time was to a house fire at Kai‑iwi township, about 16 km from town. I was both the driver and the officer in charge of the fire engine, which was common in those days. We made good time and arrived in about 12 minutes. To my dismay, the building was flat on the ground. On my return to station, I checked the circumstances of the call. I was told that it had taken a long time to get hold of the County Clerk to get his agreement to pay for the Brigade's attendance at the fire before we could go. Another time, we were called to a fire in a field of barley at Putiki on the outskirts of the city; no more that three or four kilometres from the fire station. This time, I had to leave the crew behind and go on my own because the fire was outside the Fire District. I managed to enlist the help of a traffic officer, and with one or two bystanders, we managed to control a very fast moving fire which would otherwise have taken the owner's tractor and outbuildings with it.


This attitude to rural fires wasn't uncommon in those days, but by no means general. In 1964, I moved to Hawera. Unlike Wanganui, the Hawera Fire Board was responsible for a United Fire District covering both the Borough and the County, a large are of about 500 square kilometres. There, a 'fire' was a 'fire', and it received prompt attention, regardless of its location.


Funding for the Fire Service under the Fire Services Act was 50% from Insurance Companies' general funds (not a levy on fire policies), 40% from the local authority (pro-rated if more than one was involved) and 10% from Government. Later, this was changed to 35% local authority and 15 % Government. Where there was agreement to cover a Protected Area outside the Fire District, the County paid all agreed sum to the Urban Fire Authority.


This was the arrangement in Upper Hutt where I was Chief for six years. The Upper Hutt Fire Board covered Upper Hutt City, but because much of the development in the Heretaunga, Silverstrearn and Pinehaven area was in the County, the Board had all agreement with the County to protect this area, as well as the area north to Akatarawa and Te Marua. The agreement was primarily for the protection of property, but also provided for the brigade's attendance at herbage fires and joint operations with the Rural Fire Authority (the Hutt County) for the Protected Area. Much of the Upper Hutt valley was covered in gorse and other vegetation. Having been brought up on forestry equipment and firefighting techniques, I soon set about putting this experience to combat a serious run of gorse fires. I could see no future in lugging heavy hoses through the undergrowth and up those hills. To my consternation, I was taken to task by the Fire Service Council for wanting to buy a Wajax pump and some packs of hose for use in an Urban Fire District. Such was the official stance on rural fires, as recently as that. However, I won the argument. Forestry packs became standard on our fire engines, as indeed they are today throughout the Fire Service. We also pinched an idea from Evan Carroll (the late Chief of Eastbourne) and mounted deck monitors on our fire engines to enable a quick knock‑down of gorse fires to allow the safer use of hand lines. These too became common on fire engines.


In the early 70's, the official attitude to rural fires changed. Courses on rural firefighting for members of the Fire Service were run at Rotorua. More appropriate equipment was carried on fire engines for fighting vegetation fires. At least in the Wellington area, spurred on by Mrs Hine's conservationists and Bill McCabe and his bushfire force, fire brigades became more inclined to actively fight fires rather than let them take their course.


In April 1976, when the Fire Service was nationalised, one of the early declarations of the new Commission was that each Protected Area was included in the adjacent Fire District. This was intended to ensure that everyone living within a reasonable distance of a fire brigade received full protection. There was no legal basis for this declaration. The law still required each Fire District to be gazetted. The declaration was later cancelled, and Area Commanders were instructed to redefine each Fire District within their Commands. Progress was slow and unfor­tunately, without sufficient guidance from above, the results were inconsistent.


In the rural scene, the demise of the NZ Forest Service in the late 80's left a huge void in rural fire protection ‑ a deficiency that the Government was obliged to remedy. It did this by passing responsibility for the co‑ordination of rural fire to the Fire Service Commission. Amendments to the Fire Service Act in 1990 which established the Commission as the National Rural Fire Authority, also introduced a charging regime for the Fire Service. These two matters required a more precise distinction between Urban and Rural areas. A programme was initiated to redefine all Urban Fire Districts. At the same time, the NRFA set about mapping all Rural Fire Districts. The objective was to have, for the first time, a clear picture of all respective fire protection responsibilities throughout the country, both urban and rural.


Notwithstanding the continued distinction between urban and rural fire over the past few years, circumstances have shifted in favour of the rural sector. The NZFS now spends about 13% of its firefighting effort in rural areas. Although the Fire Service has been forced down the user‑pays route, no charges are made for attending rural fires involving property, and the first hour at vegetation fires is free. It is only when a Rural Fire Authority wants assistance to discharge its legal responsibility that a charge is made. The bulk of the cost of fighting vegetation fires in rural areas is now met from the Rural Fire Fighting Fund which was initially set up a few years ago to pay for large rural fires of unknown origin. The NZFSC through the NRFA provides guidance, training and support to RFA's, and has established a fund to help provide fire fighting equipment for the use of rural fire forces.


In spite of this, there remains some perceived inequities between urban and rural fire protection. Some see an unfairness in rural dwellers, unlike their urban counterparts, having to pay rates for the fire protection of vegetation as well as a levy on their insured property to fund a predominantly urban Fire Service. Perhaps they are right.


What of the future? I don't believe the answer lies in extending the NZ Fire Service's influence further into the rural scene. It would be inappropriate to regiment rural firefighters like their urban cousins. There is an urgent need to set some common sense ground rules on just where Rural Fire Forces are needed. At the moment there is little rationale in the formation of some of these units. They just seem to grow like topsy. It would be sensible for the Commission to provide, house and maintain firefighting equipment and protective clothing, and to provide basic training for rural fire forces, in appropriate locations, as long as was done without too much bureaucracy. There is no longer any justification for the cost of fire protection being met solely from a levy on insured property. However, apart from advocating one common pool to fund fire protection, urban and rural, I'll leave that debate for the insurance interests, Federated Farmers, Business Roundtable and Government to resolve. Whatever the outcome, I'll be watching with interest.