Some Recollections of a Career in Fire Protection


In his address to the 1997 UFBA Conference, FRFANZ Chairman Don Geddes, reflected on some aspects of his long career in vegetation fire control.


I will start by telling you something of my personal journey with regard to fire. I became aware of the infamous 1946 forest fires at Taupo because my father, whose employment (as was everybody's) was directed by the government Manpower ministry, was on a short list to go and fight them. Taupo was sparsely settled and much of the town, even to the centre, grew scrub and rank grass that was ripe for burning. It was only saved from being incinerated by entirely fortunate wind changes. This was not so for many thousands of hectares of forest.


I was raised in the Waikato. I can remember the extraordinarily dense fogs that occurred in the autumns. The Waikato has a fog‑prone climate, but the real problem was the extensive peat fires that occurred virtually every summer. These were accepted as part of life rather than something that somebody should be doing something about.


About 1953, I obtained a job as caretaker/manager of a 1000 ha private forest on the NW boundary of Kaingaroa Forest. Half of this forest was regenerated from the 1946 Taupo fires. Outside all of the boundaries, except that with Kaingaroa forest, were extensive areas of highly flammable scrub mixtures. The NW boundary was the Waikato river with scrub on the other side. This caught fire one summer with several hundred ha being burned. About a kilometre south of the forest, this fire came to the river and crossed it on a front just as though there had been no river at all. As the fire was a threat to Kaingaroa and Tokoroa forests, it was given the full treatment with all the resources that the state and NZFP could muster. After that, I arranged for the forest fire breaks round my patch to be widened by crushing and burning out the scrub for 100 m or so around the forest.

Controlled burn at Hira Forest showing big central convection plume.


1980 Golden Downs forest controlled burn


Forest fire protection at that time was a big issue. Fire awareness was still very high as a result of the Taupo fires. All the resources considered appropriate at that time were funded and made available for vegetation fire protection. During the 1950's and 60's, many tens of thousands of hectares of scrubland around Taupo and Rotorua were crushed and burned, and turned into farms. Forest managers from the Forest Service (Kaingaroa), and sometimes NZFP, ran many of these burns to make sure that they did not escape into the forests. Smaller, but still large areas, were burned as part of land preparation for forest planting. Very large controlled scrub fires were part of every summer scene. This also meant that there was a large body of people who had experience every summer with large and intensive vegetation fires.


In 1964 I was transferred to Kawerau to work with Tasman Pulp & Paper Co. in forest development in the Bay of Plenty region. Much of the land converted to forest was in scrub, heavy scrub, pole stand type native forest, and some logged‑out more mature forest. This was desiccated, crushed, felled, and burned. Many of these burns would be in dried and heavy fuels, higher than my head, and covering hundreds of hectares at a burn. I haven't made a tally, but it would be safe to say that I had involvement with 40‑60,000 hectares of such bums.


We used to light them with flame throwers, and as this was rather slow for large areas, we would start midafternoon and would sometimes still be lighting on into the early hours of the next morning. The flame throwers leaked diesel, and we worked in heavy smoke The weather was extremely hot. We would be soaked in diesel and sweat, black with ash, and permeated with smoke. Whatever time I arrived home, my wife refused to allow me in the house till I had entirely stripped outside, and this occurred for many nights every summer. The approach was comparatively unsophisticated. Detailed burn plans were not developed. Our understanding of the weather factors was limited. Minor escapes did not bother us. Bounding forests were usually young forests on land recently burned over, and bounding scrublands burned by mistake, would either be added to the year's planting program, or planted in forest the following season. Over time, we had to do major burns in areas surrounded with valuable and fuel laden forests. Our approach had to become much more sophisticated. What were formerly minor escapes could now become very costly mistakes. Burns were planned with care, and detailed formal plans were mandatory.


Helicopters made a huge difference to how we conducted our burns. It was a while before we realised the potential of these machines and virtually used them as though we were still hand lighting. The practice was to try and create a burned out barrier on the lee boundary by lighting it little bit by little bit, and contain any fire that jumped the fire‑break. It was a foul job. People with fire fighting equipment had to man the fire break in the smoke to be quick to any escapes ‑ and escapes there were. They did not get far, but the total effort was uncomfortable, hot, dirty and prolonged and the risk was comparatively high. One of the things that was apparent, time and time again, was that as soon as any amount of flame was around, then the wind would get up, and matters would get worse.


We learned over time that a vegetation fire would create a convection that could be useful to us, and just as an open fire in a house is safe because of the convection up the chimney, on a large scale, land clearing burns could also be made safer. With helicopters we could light up a large fire quickly in the middle of the burn. The convection wind would draw in the fire from all sides, no matter what the prevailing wind was. In fact it would draw in with tremendous force, with whirlwinds, and tremendous roaring and crackling. With the wind coming in from all sides, we could light all the boundaries with no fear of escapes till after the heat had gone out of the fire, and the prevailing wind could blow embers across the lee boundary. By that time most of the heat and smoke had gone, and managing any escapes was comparatively easy. Also, we had the helicopters and buckets to help.


They were finger biting exercises the first times. You couldn't use this method half‑heartedly, in fact if you did, it would fail. There was no way to try it out but to go the whole hog, and if it didn't work, we would have a huge fire roaring into the bounding forest with little chance of control. It worked, and after a while it became the standard practice. We used two helicopters to light up, even on small secure looking burns, because if we were committed to a convection bum and there was a helicopter or burner break‑down part way through, we would have been in deep trouble. As it was, I never had any serious escapes from the many burns that were done this way. What is more, we were done in a fraction of the time it used to take, and with far less discomfort. The truth was, we got a great high out of these events.


We got huge convections of smoke and cloud from some of these burns. Sometimes they would be at such a height and volume as to precipitate a filthy rain on clear days. This way of doing things had two effects regarding vegetation fires:


* We developed a force of very experienced vegetation fire fighters and managers.

* We created natural barriers to fire in our forests. Burned areas would be secure against fire for 5 ‑ 6 years and even then, areas that were flammable were broken up by the burned out areas.


There have been some big changes since those days. For over a decade it has been politically bad to carry out land clearing burns. Forests are planted straight into logging slash, or desiccated and crushed scrub, bracken, gorse or whatever, in fuel beds that for the following ten years will burn with uncontrollable intensities under quite moderate burning conditions. What I am saying is that when the fire signs are pointing to Moderate, these fuels will bum fiercely.


We have lost most of the practical vegetation fire fighting skills that we had at all levels. This has happened faster with the transferring of all the national exotic forests to private ownership, and the forests ceased to provide the vegetation fire control resources for the nation. The pace of change has far exceeded the national capacity to develop an alternative vegetation fire fighting capacity. In fact it has never reached the capacity that it had in Forest Service days.


In my personal career, I became Senior Protection Officer for all of Fletcher Challenge forests in New Zealand, with an administrative responsibility for control of fire, of forest weeds and forest health. However, once we had ceased to do significant land clearing burns, the fire fighting capacity decayed quite rapidly. It became hard to get budgets for fire protection resources. The problem was to convince those who allocated the cash as to the reality of the risk of fire.


We get years of serious fire risk only once every 10-15 years in New Zealand. Managers get more brownie points for more productive use of resources than fire protection, and unless they are unlucky, they will probably have moved on before there is a fire for which they may be held accountable. It reached a stage that I made a report to senior staff, to some extent declining responsibility unless forest fire protection was more fully incorporated into the system and adequately resourced. This brought a positive response, and very worthwhile changes.


The decay of vegetation fire protection is not peculiar to Fletcher Challenge. It is a national problem and it is a problem around the world. The severe bush fires that threatened Sydney and caused severe loss of bush and property several years ago, were very much a product of this kind of malaise. Different vegetative types develop a potential for fire over different periods of time. With grasses and tussocks, that may be as low as two years. With other shrub land types it may be any period up to 30 years. There are places in the world where fire causing severe loss of life and property has occurred regularly at 30 ‑50 year intervals and it is just about impossible to set up a system to control it. Following a fire the vegetation won't burn fiercely again for a couple of decades or more, so why do anything about it till then? And by then the problem is forgotten.


Vegetation fires are in many ways more difficult and certainly very different to control than all but a very few urban and industrial fires. They sometimes have to be fought around the clock for days and occasionally weeks. They require the use of bulldozers and heavy machinery, aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing, and many other resources that are not normally used for fire. These resources, and the people with them, do not fit easily into structures based on military patterns, but which are required for managing serious emergencies of any sort. Our chances of having serious vegetation fires are certainly low. However, there is the potential for losses in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, and more importantly, serious loss of life should we get vegetation fire under conditions that do occur from time to time in many parts of New Zealand.


New Zealand has a potential for vegetation fire that is far too high to ignore. Those who have been involved realise the potential. To regard our vegetation fire history since the 1946 Taupo fires as relatively good and therefore cause for complacency, is not good. We cannot do a lot about earthquake, volcano and cyclone disasters, but vegetation fire disasters are something we have more control over if we are prepared for them. Two problems that have to be addressed:


*  People and public organisations have to be motivated to set up fully adequate systems for vegetation fire protection.

* Such systems have to be set up in such a way that they will not be allowed to decay during years when there are few significant vegetation fires.