[Presented at 2006 FRFANZ Conference]


Rural Fire Responsibilities in Marlborough


The total land area in the Marlborough District comprises of 1.7 million hectares or thereabout. Rural Fire is managed by two separate bodies:


  1. The Marlborough North Rural Fire Committee administers a Rural Fire District which is all the land north of the Wairau River including the Marlborough Sounds. The total land area in Marlborough North is approximately 338,000 hectares. The Department of Conservation is a major land owner in the Marlborough North Rural Fire District along with Weyerhaeuser NZ a commercial Forest Company.


  1. The land south of the Wairau River is administered by the Marlborough District Council as the Territorial Fire Authority for the area. The total land area south of the Wairau River comprises approximately 1.36 million hectares.


On this particular day two major fires started simultaneously in Marlborough North. The first at Canvastown at 17:16 hours and a second fire at Snake Point in the Marlborough Sounds at 17:43 hours. Then on Saturday 11 March at 18:30 hours, a further fire was responded to at McLarens Bay in the Marlborough Sounds involving a commercial tree crop. This fire was extinguished by 2 Helicopters and two fire crews.




The Ruapeka fire at Canvastown occurred on 8 March 2006. The fire was first reported at 17:16 hours. In the initial response the Fire Service sent two Fire Service appliances from Havelock and Rai Valley. The Havelock Fire Service appliance was the first to arrive at 17:33 hours, 17 minutes after the first call was received in the Fire Service call centre in Christchurch. On arrival the Havelock Fire Service Officer called for additional appliances. One further Fire Service appliance was responded from Renwick together with a Marlborough District Council Water tanker and the Linkwater Rural Fire Force. The Canvastown Rural Fire Force arrived very early in the initial stages but their time of arrival was not recorded.




In the 3 month period leading up to the fire, the weather had been dry but considered normal for this time of the year. The weather readings taken at the Ral Valley weather station on the day of the fire were as follows:


Temperature  18.6

FFMC             96.3

ISI                       6.5

BUI                      64

DC                    211

FWI                     19


There was a strong North West wind blowing at the fire site which resulted in a high intensity fast spreading fire especially through the gorse and scrub growing on the private property below the forest belonging to Weyerhaeuser. The fuels were very combustible with an abundance of available fine fuels. The scrub fire models were extreme.




At the time of the initial attack (1733) the fire was burning in scrub fuels. The RIMT estimated the rates of spread at around 2500 metres per hour with a fire intensity of around 20,000 kilowatts per metre. The RIMT estimated the rates of spread in the exotic forest slightly less than in the scrub fuels. The ROS in the Forest was around 500 metres per hour with fire intensity of around 6,000 kilowatts per metre. The drop off in wind strength and a reduction in temperature over night did reduce fire intensity and fire spread which enabled the crews to contain the fire.




Eight houses were identified as a possible risk from the fire. The residents of these houses were evacuated by the Police and Fire Service personnel during the initial attack. In addition to this there were one or two temporary residents living in an old bus and another person living in a tent within the fire perimeter which were also evacuated.




The total area burnt was 215.4 hectares, 133 hectares of exotic forest and a further 82 hectares of scrub and grassland. The fire threatened eight houses and delayed traffic on highway 6 the Blenheim to Nelson highway. The mop up continued for a further 14 days and many fire crews were away from their normal contracts and employment for this period of time.




The initial response came from three Fire Service appliances and two Volunteer Fire Force units and staff from Weyerhaeuser. The Marlborough RIMT was notified at 21:30 hours with the team arriving at the fire site at 22:45 hours. By 23:00 hours the fire had made its main run and by this time the RIMT was in place. Containment of the fire at this point was achievable, the wind had dropped away to nothing and the temperature had dropped down into single figures.


The RIMT started by collecting the number of resources on site, where the resources were and mapping the fire perimeter. The team then produced a situation report and started developing an incident action plan for the day shift  which was to take over the operation at 06:00 hours the next morning. During the night, fire crews continued to secure the perimeter and respond to a number of flare ups. The fire was contained on two flanks by two forestry roads, highway 6 (Blenheim to Nelson) and at the head of the fire by a native beech forest; it was our objective to contain the fire within these boundaries. Crews were placed on the roads with instructions to contain the fire within the set boundaries and not to allow fire to jump across the road. During the night we still had to protect the houses that were still threatened by fire which by this time were a little subdued but still a risk to the houses. Traffic on the highway especially at night was a real issue as we had diggers, fire appliances and crews working from the highway. The RIMT worked well we had a team of seven initially and as we got operations under way we dropped two off at around 02:00 hours. I think it would be fair to say that on reflection the RIMT should have been engaged much earlier than it was.


It would have been easier to pick up the threads earlier in the night and make arrangement for the next day before people went to bed. The team made a decision not to phone crews before 04.30 hours, to let them sleep so they would wake up at least having had some uninterrupted sleep.




Weyerhaeuser NZ Inc and many of their contractors

Canvas Town Rural Fire Force

Linkwater Rural Fire Force

Department of Conservation

Marlborough District Council Blenheim Rural Fire Force

Waihopai Rural Fire Force

Waimea Rural Fire District

Rural Fire Network

Amateur Radio Emergency club Lake Rotoiti Rural Fire Force

NZ Fire Service



St Johns Ambulance

Works Infrastructure

Various Contractors

Numerous Aircraft Operators






No Injuries occurred during the entire operation of suppressing the fire. Around 1.9 million litres of water was dropped from the air. The RIMT worked very well with excellent inter-agency co‑operation. The T Card system used was very effective.






Air operations

Ground operations

Heavy Machinery & Resources

14 RIMT Members rotated on 12 hour shifts.

Two heavy lift helicopters

Seven Medium helicopters

Robinson 44 Air attack


137 Ground Fire fighters

Six Rural Fire appliances

Five water carriers

Two Fire Service appliances

Two smoke chasers

Two bulldozers D7

Two 25 tonne diggers

5,000 litres foam

Civil Defence Communications Unit

First Aid Ambulance




Excellent interagency co‑operation. Good water supply in Pelorus River Overnight wind speeds at around 3 kph. Overnight temperature as low as 5 oC. Gale force winds predicted for Thursday did not eventuate. Distance of travel to the fire from Blenheim or Nelson was short. Good support from Havelock community only 7km from fire ground.




4 houses within the fire perimeter. 4 houses just outside fire perimeter but threatened. State Highway 6 Blenheim to Nelson running along one flank of the fire. Skid sites with large quantity of buried, unburnt heavy fuels. Transmission lines ‑ Blenheims entire power supply running through the fire area. Narrow roads and tracks requiring good communication between crews driving around Fire area.




*  Excellent Regional interagency co‑operation between MarIborough and Nelson crews.

*  RIMT worked well and was essential in managing both fires but should have been responded much earlier.

*  Good communications; in this instance communications was not an issue.

*  CIMS structure worked well but not sufficient people in the RIMT at times.