A year 2000 Rural Fire Management Seminar was held in Wellington on 29th June 2000. 56 people attended the seminar with presentations provided by Fire Service Commission Chairperson Dame Margaret Bazley, Gerald Hensley (Chairman, Hensley Committee), Paul Sampson (Local Government New Zealand), Kerry Hilliard (Department of Conservation) and National Rural Fire Officer, Murray Dudfield. The presentation by Gerald Hensley provided a very good overview of the Review of the Rural Fire Service in 1989 and a copy is attached for your information [NRFA Circ. 2000/14].



Thursday, 29 June 2000


Comments on the 1989 Review by the Committee Chairman, Mr Gerald Hensley


Changes to our system of rural fire management have traditionally come after a bad summer of fires. That was so in 1947, 1955, and 1977, and it was what triggered the review in 1989. Over the Christmas holiday period there were serious and very damaging fires in pine plantations at Selwyn and Bottle Lake in mid‑Canterbury. Worries about how the fires were handled were publicly expressed. The Prime Minister, David Large, asked me to look at the problem. His request was in fact two‑fold: I was to prepare recommendations for improvement, but they were not to cost any more public money.


At that time I was in charge of a newly‑established body as Coordinator of Domestic and External Security. The Government's idea was that all threats to New Zealand's security should be identified and planned for in one agency. Our first outing was to manage the disaster recovery for Cyclone Bola. So it was perhaps natural for the Government to turn to its new agency over the Canterbury fires. Our job was coordination not management. At the time our staff consisted of myself and Jim Rolfe, though under pressure of work it later reached the heights of three. Neither Jim nor I knew anything about rural fires ‑ I hardly knew one end of a hose from the other. So our first step was to consult quickly with those in Forestry, Conservation and the Fire Service who did.


As a result of these informal consultations it became apparent that the problems were more fundamental than what had happened in Canterbury:


* the Forest Service, the country's longstanding reservoir of expertise and best practice, was on the way out. It had in effect underwritten the whole system for decades and without it the danger of fragmentation of skills, standards and equipment was acute.


* at the same time local government was undergoing a major reorganisation, leaving the future responsibility for rural fires uncertain. Since the new local bodies were no keener to assume that financial burden than anyone else, it reopened the perennial question of whether rural firefighting and prevention should be funded nationally or locally.


* but Canterbury had also highlighted problems of standards, good coordination and late payment for services which our consultations told us were endemic in the whole system.


So we went back to Cabinet proposing to convert our informal group into a Committee charged with determining "how best fire services can be provided in rural areas". We drafted wide‑ranging terms of reference for ourselves covering not merely the best structure for rural fire services, but also issues of coordination and funding. Cabinet ticked these on 13 February and we started work at once.


The key to the process, and the degree of success it had, was the Review Committee. My role was purely that of Coordinator ‑ for once the title was exactly right. The heart of the Committee was the extensive knowledge held by Neill Cooper and Murray Dudfield in Forestry, Kerry Hilliard the one‑man blaze from Conservation, Dave Woodward from the Fire Service and the governmental and legislative expertise of people like John Holloway and Murray Darroch. We started with a kind of general debate, to give Jim and me a grasp of the issues and the different approaches to dealing with them. There were, and as you well know still are, conflicting interests and viewpoints on quite basic principles. These came out even more clearly in the 70 submissions and the two public meetings we held to get a feel for the concerns of forest owners, high country farmers and others.


So the debates around the table in my office were at times brisk, as we put it rather mildly in our Introduction. But after a few weeks we felt confident enough to agree on five important principles that in the end decided the framework of our Review.


The Basic Principles We Followed:


1.     Fire is part of land use and cannot be treated apart from other land use issues.


  1. As such, therefore, it is a local issue which requires local answers. As we noted in the report, 'New Zealand's system, based on local self‑help, has been remarkably effective in meeting the kind of threat we face." This traditional decentralisation has enabled the interests of farmers, foresters and conservation to be reconciled in widely differing local circumstances.


3.     We should continue to rely on the voluntary principle in fighting rural fires. This is not only because it is far and away the cheapest alternative. It underlines local responsibility, and mobilising large amounts of volunteer labour in a crisis seems the most effective way of dealing with the intermittent nature of rural fires.


4.   Local application should be matched by national standards. That is to say, the principle that rural fires require local methods must be modified to ensure that standards for such key matters as equipment, training and communications must be common and therefore set nationally.


5.  Finally, where fires spread across local boundaries, what was needed was better coordination rather than greater direction from the centre.


What We Found


The major faults we saw in our examination were also five, but you could say that they all focussed on the single theme of fragmentation, the fragmentation that had followed the end of the Forest Service which, it was belatedly becoming clear, had quietly underwritten the rural system:


1)     The end of the Forest Service was threatening a haemorrhage of firefighting expertise. The Service provided help, training and equipment to rural fire authorities, and the super smoke chasers to deal with critical fires. These experts were still around in the Ministry of Forestry but since the Ministry did not fight fires that expertise was unlikely to be maintained. And there seemed to be no framework to take the Forest Service's place. Legislation did not set any standards or minimum requirements because these had been done in practice by the Forest Service.


2)     Because of this there were widely fluctuating levels in local capabilities. The big problems had been taken care of by the Forest Service (“We were spoilt by the Forest Service" one authority said to us frankly). With the Service gone it was clear that a number of rural fire authorities were simply too small or too financially pressed to meet their responsibilities. There were no minimum standards for training, equipment or fire plans, and no means of checking these standards even if they had existed.


3)     Further evidence of the risks of fragmentation was the increasing signs of coordination difficulties among rural authorities when a fire crossed boundaries, or when it came to sorting out the costs. In the South Wairarapa, where I now live, work was held up at the height of a blaze while the two counties involved tried to apportion the costs. This was an obvious affront to common sense.


4)     There was confusion over the role of the Fire Service. Although there was no legal requirement to do so, the Fire Service went in practice to any rural fire it could reach. With better roads and communications that reach was expanding steadily (it attended over 4,500 rural fires in the year we studied). But it had no acknowledged position in the rural firefighting system and was uncertain about what sort of training and equipment it could usefully provide to its volunteer brigades in the country.


5)     Finally and inevitably, there were funding problems. It seemed to us (though plenty disagreed) that the problem was not so much a lack of funds as that the money was not getting to where it was most needed. The big problem for local authorities were the periodic but big blazes which were costly to fight and too expensive to fund or even to plan for in any one year. There was a Rural Firefighting Fund but access to it was tightly constrained. The unintended result was that authorities were strapped for cash and contractors were not being paid for months. What was needed was a simpler funding system providing better incentives for people to fight fires rather than accountants and, as we said in our report, ‘’to tackle dangerous fires quickly and boldly".


After we had mulled over and argued about these problems, we tried a first cut at some draft recommendations which we put to Cabinet on 26 June. These were not firm. We wanted to give Cabinet an idea of the direction of our thinking and get its authority to undertake a round of public consultation to test and where necessary amend our views. As many of you will remember, we then took the show on the road, holding meetings in six locations from South Otago to Auckland, talking to over 300 people and industry groups and receiving a further 60 submissions. All this considerably lengthened our draft report but also helped us to identify and tackle the hotspots.


The Hotspots


1)     The first was, and I suspect still is, the thorny question of a fair apportionment of the fire service levy. The outlines of the problem and its numerous inconsistencies you will know better than I. It tended to dominate many of our public discussions where people who lived in remote areas were indignant that they were required to pay for a service which they could not receive. But there were also other considerations. Only about 2% of households were beyond the reach of the Fire Service. If such households were exempt from the levy the insurance companies would then have a list of houses with a greater fire risk and might raise premiums accordingly.


In the end we made a blunt cut through the arguments and settled for the principle of “rough equity". This meant that essentially the costs fell where they lay at each level ‑ the insured property‑owners, local authorities and forest companies ‑ and the muted grumbling from all sides suggested that we had got the compromise about right.


And we added an important sweetener to the pot, and not just a sweetener but an essential part of our approach. This was to make access to the Rural Firefighting Fund easier and quicker. The idea was to make the costs of fighting a fire above certain excess levels a charge on the Fund. We looked for a twofold benefit: rural firefighters could call in whatever equipment ‑ helicopters, monsoon buckets, bulldozers ‑ was needed to deal with the fire without having to worry about paying for it; and local authorities could plan for a routine level of fires, so to speak, without having to worry that a major blaze would blow their budget and cripple them financially.


2)     The other source of considerable heat was the role to be given to the Fire Service. It was clear to all of us that a national body was needed to set standards and monitor them but who should that body be? We considered a merger, with one National Fire Service covering both urban and rural fires, but ruled that out on the grounds that the nature of urban and rural fires is fundamentally different. So should there be a separate Rural Fire Service? That we felt would be far too costly, and was not needed if as we were all convinced rural firefighting should be a local responsibility.


The National Rural Firefighting Authority as we saw it would be responsible for standards and auditing thern, encouraging better training, and administering the Rural Firefighting Fund. This meant special skills but it did not imply a large or stand‑alone office. So where should this small office be attached? This caused our committee more heartburning than almost any other issue. The Ministry of Forestry was strongly favoured by many forest owners whose case was put with particular clarity by the late Peter Olsen and the two Ministry representatives on the Committee understandably agreed with them. In the end, though, we opted for the Fire Service because it had an institutional framework within which rural fire expertise could be developed. The Ministry, we felt, did not have the resources to do this.


3)     Compared with these two issues, the other hotspots were minor. We hesitated over the best means of getting better regional coordination and, I think, got it wrong. We concluded that the new Regional Councils would be the most logical place from which to monitor local compliance and prepare regional fire plans. But the regions had neither the immediate local concerns or the national responsibility. Thirteen part‑time coordinators did not work and the task has come back to the Fire Service regions.


And there was one important change which was the result of the public meetings. The extent of the interest shown by all groups with an interest in the management of rural fires persuaded us that we would have to provide for such feedback on a regular basis. So to our modest list of recommendations on machinery we added one for a National Rural Firefighting Advisory Committee to ensure that the ideas of people in the field were brought into the administrative loop without delay.




Our report went to Cabinet on 23 August, just over six months after we started work. Interim implementation started under Mr Rural Fire himself, Murray Dudfield, and Murray Darroch and others oversaw the preparation of the necessary amending legislation. I have explained the thinking behind our report. Now I will be as interested as anyone to hear from the next speakers how that thinking has developed over ten years.


Several of the Committee members are here today. In a sense we are here to be accountable for what we decided then, if necessary to offer public repentance for our shortcomings, but most of all to hear how it has worked out. For myself, I can say that I have worked on many tasks in forty‑one years of government service, but on none have I met more dedicated and knowledgeable people than in the rural fire sector and no task has given me more lasting satisfaction than preparing that report.