Paper Presented by John Ward
FRFANZ Conference Greymouth August 1999
I am pleased to see that this years Conference is being held in Greymouth, departing from the standard venues. As a Forest Ranger, in my twenties, I spent nearly ten years on the Coast based in Hokitika and I consider the Coast rny second home. I am very pleased to be here and sure we will have an excellent conference.
I have been retired now for about nine years and currently describe myself as a unemployed Rural Fire Mediator. I do some work, mainly in publicity, for the Waimea Rural Fire Committee, hence I am really only, on the fringes of rural fire these days. Accordingly I am not going to get too serious about the subject, that will come later, but I would like to show you an old film, look at a few main events in rural fire management over the years, tell a couple of stories and finally give you a few thoughts for the future.
Although the theme for the conference is Rural Fire Beyond 2000, I think we also need to consider what has happened in the past and the impact of some of these main events on the present scene. This is especially important as new personnel come into rural fire due to retirements and restructuring.
I would like to introduce a slice of history showing you a film which came to light when I was researching a book on Golden Downs Forest a couple of years ago. The old National Film Unit weekly review is entitled Fire Season and it was screened nationally about 1951. Some in the room will relate to the old equipment... the quad fire engines, Paramount pumps, old radios and the Indian knapsacks.
I think you will agree it was an excellent publicity exercise and gives us a graphic window back nearly 50 years.
Looking back a bit further, to 1885, when rainfall across the Dominion was 30% of normal, the stage was set to usher in the Fire Storm Summer. By January 1886, a series of huge fires swept over the NZ countryside destroying buildings, thousands of stock, fences pasture and native bush. In my area, Nelson. the Mail reported huge fire burning unchecked beyond Spooners Range impeding the Cobb & Co coaches to the Coast.
The first real awareness of the need for rural fire management came with the establishment of the State Forest Service as a separate Government department in 1919, and the appointment of Leon McIntosh Ellis as Director General. He estimated that in the preceding generation, 0.5 million ha of virgin timberland had been destroyed. In 1920 alone, 20,000 ha of Crown Land had been lost. Ellis identified fire as "the arch enemy of successful forestry and the single most technical problem the SFS had to deal with“.
The Forest Act, introduced in 1921‑22, made provisions for the introduction of fire districts and by 1930, forty fire districts covering 800,000 ha had been gazetted. It is noted that, and I quote, “only in Westland, an area of high rainfall were none in existence". The Act also provided for closed fire seasons, honorary rangers to be appointed and for permits to bum, effective provisions which still remain.
These regulations provided protection for new forests planted during the first planting boom, large private forests in the Central North Island and areas of native forest. However, fire restrictions upset farmers who fell the viability of farming as being threatened. In Nelson, the Conservator reported that; "the real opposition to the forestry scheme at Golden Downs was the fear that settlers burns would be restricted". Ellis was astute enough to realise that successful rural fire control required more than statutes and regulations and depended on: "public forest consciousness and the appreciation of the forest as a tangible asset not something to be got rid of”.
It is my understanding that in areas where exotic forests were being established in both private and state sectors, reasonable levels of fire management and control were achieved. In many areas however, landowners continued to take little heed of existing rural fire law and continued to burn at will.
I would like to relate to you a couple of my early experiences in rural fire. In 1954, as a first year technical trainee at Conical Hills in the Tapanul district, the Officer in Charge, Mr Cook singled me out one morning to assist him burning off for the first years planting at Rankleburn forest. The burning party, ie. Mr Cook and myself travelled to the site with our equipment, plumbers blow torches for lighting up. My experience at burning off was nil and my greatest asset that day was my supreme fitness and speed. I learnt on that particular day, I could run faster than the fire, hence my presence here today. There was no fire breaks, no communications and the fire plan was either in Irving Cook’s head or on his tobacco packet. Next morning he showed me an aerial photo of the block and was pleased we had burnt several hundred acres.
The following year, I was at Tuatapere and experienced my first fire. It had been a dry spell and I understand the District Ranger, Tom Swale was told by the Conservator, Mr Reviers, he had better do something about the fires in his district. We proceeded early on Saturday morning to a fire at Blackmount Station on the Tuatapere ‑Manipouri road. The fire was burning up a very steep slope in mainly bracken and in several places into the beech forest. We set up a relay with a V8 pump In the creek, then a Hale pump and finally a Paramount, allowing us to get water onto the fire. That evening, travelling back to Tuatapere, we counted about a dozen fires burning as we proceeded down the Waiau Valley. We were at it again at daylight next morning and finally put the fire out late afternoon. Tom ordered us to pack up and immediately, it absolutely hosed down putting out every fire in Western Southland! Us trainees thought it was a great weekend as fire fighting rates were about double our "bottom of the barrel” trainee wages, and I suppose it kept us out of mischief for that weekend.
The 1946 fires in Taupo. Hawkes Bay and North Auckland resulted in a change to the Act & Regs which was aimed at protecting areas other than State Forests, a direct result of the loss of 13,300 ha of exotic forests during the fires. Also, of note, was the Balmoral fire in 1955 which destroyed 3,100 ha and fires at Ashley, 1973 and Hamner, 1976.
Rapidly expanding exotic forestry in the 1950's and 1960's meant that the strength of rural fire control was with the old NZ Forest Service, who had a network of forests across the country and with the large private forestry companies in the Central North Island. There was a lot of expertise at all levels of fire control due to a high percentage of land being prepared for planting by controlled burning. The NZFS controlled equipment standards and was responsible for rural fire administration.
In the late 1970's, John Valentine, a Forester with the NZFS, was assigned to fire research and this led to the introduction of the Canadian fire weather index in 1980 replacing the old fire danger meter system. I am not sure why the research programme wasn't extended, maybe this was due to over confidence by those in the forestry sector.
Without doubt the greatest change I have seen in rural fire took place in the mid 1970's with the introduction of helicopters. Burning off and fire fighting immediately became much safer and more effective and gave managers more options and confidence. However, at fires such as the Hira fire in Nelson in 1981, Dunsandel 1988, the more recent Berwick forest fire, and even the Tasman fire in our area last year, illustrate how relatively ineffective any control measures are in the face of natures forces.
The event which really shaped today’s rural fire scene, was the dismantling of the NZFS in 1987 and the immediate need to build a new functional system. Faults were exposed at the Dunsandel fire in 1988 and other fires such as at Havelock in Marlborough which led to the Hensley report and the formation of the National Rural Fire Authority in 1990. A very testing time, which Í think we came through with credit, thanks to a lot of hard work and a couple of moderate fire seasons.
One of the beneficial consequences of the 1987 reforms is that the focus of rural fire control, previously with the exotic forestry sector, has became more evenly spread, with territorial authorities and the new Department of Conservation taking up the challenge. This has created a more balanced rural fire system leading to better public understanding, quicker response times, coordination of resources and a gradual build up of expertise to replace Forest Service losses.
I would now like to say a few words about the National Rural Fire Authority, that is if Murray Dudfield would please leave the room.
The structure of the NRFA, with Rural Fire Managers in districts is very good. Rural fire personnel have someone accessible and experienced to relate to.
The consensus approach, adopted by the NRF Officer is to be commended, this has allowed experience in the sector to be utilised and increased user acceptance.
The Code of Practise was exactly what was needed to enable enforcement and audit of standards and requirements, previously lacking in the old system, thus allowing some RFAs to largely ignore the statutes.
The widening of the Rural Fire Fighting Fund has provided more effective response and provided confidence and incentive in control and helped phase in the ‘user pays' concept.
Volunteer Rural Fire Forces are now fully recognised and supported providing excellent initial response and back‑up at fires.
To conclude, where should we be going in the future? I will give you some of my thoughts, albeit from someone who is localised and somewhat on the sideline these days.
My view is that no major changes are needed to the present rural fire system. We are headed in the right direction and I think statistics back this up. Some in the political area are advocating changes, based I feel, on lack of understanding of the rural fire sector.
Keep thing simple. The only complaint I hear these days is the amount of paper work required.
Research is essential. RFA's need to support the national programme and contact with overseas experts such as Marty Alexander are invaluable.
Amalgamation of RFA's is gathering momentum. This means better use of resources and allows more full time professionals into the sector which must be an advantage.
Many PRFO's lack experience at managing a large fire. It would be an advantage for limited numbers to attend major fires outside their areas or attend follow‑up case studies conducted on the ground
Being a very amateur historian these days, I would like to see our rural fire history recorded, one way or another. 'Now' is always the right time to make a start.
Thank you Mr Chairman.
John Ward, Richmond