Wildland fire fighting in the United States and New Zealand: the similarities and differences.


John H. Rasmussen. National Rural Fire Authority, P 0 Box 148, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


[Talk presented to the 2001 Annual FRFANZ Conference]




The general operational principles applied to effectively fight vegetation fires are broadly similar the world over. Fire fighting is undertaken using direct or indirect attack using a diverse range of resources. Management principles are applied very differently and to varying standards. Experiences gained during the 2000 fire assignment to the Northwestern Rockies are used as a basis for comparing the differences between New Zealand and United States fire fighting operations. However, it is necessary to background each country in some detail to understand why the similarities and differences between the two countries exist.




This paper is written following the author's involvement in firefighting operations in the United States of America (U.S.) being part of the 79 person New Zealand and Australian contingent who assisted the Americans manage wildfires in the North Western Rockies during August and September 2000. This was an opportunity to compare the management and operational aspects between U.S. and New Zealand. While on one hand the fundamentals of vegetation fire fighting are the same and fire fighters from both countries can quickly adapt to the nuances of each others systems there are a number of factors that have contributed to each country's current approach to vegetation fire fighting. These include climate, fuel type, topography, legislative and political background, land tenure, length of fire season, number, duration and history of fires as well as the difference in the size of each country.




It is said that size counts and certainly when it comes to comparing New Zealand and the U.S. wildland fire fighting operations, size has played a significant part in moulding operations in both countries. Size in this context means size of countries, size of forest, size of individual fires, number of fires, area burnt, and size of fire fighting resource. New Zealand has a land area of approximately 27.0 million hectares. In comparison the United States has a land area of 936.9 million hectares. New Zealand has a population of nearly 4 million compared with the United States 250 million.


Fuel types in New Zealand are quite different to the U.S. fuel types. Indigenous forest in New Zealand is generally more lush than the indigenous conifer forests in the interior western States of U.S. There is however approximately 2 million hectares of conifer plantation forest in New Zealand that has similarity to some of the North American fuel types. There is a range of indigenous tree species in the United States, both deciduous and conifer with forest mix determined by latitude, altitude, aspect and fire frequency. Low attitude species include Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine with a change to Douglas Fir, Larch, sub alpine Fir and Whitebark pine with increase in altitude.


Studies show that even though fire has played some part in forming the natural ecosystem in New Zealand even before human occupation, the effect has been minimal with most forests evolving without the need for fire to maintain forest health. Wildfire is usually destructive to most New Zealand forest types when they bum. In the dry ecosystems of the interior West of the United States regular low intensity fires are necessary to reduce fuel loads and maintain forest health. In 1910 after one of the worst fire seasons on record in U.S. history the "10.00am policy" was born. All fires were to be extinguished by that time the next day, to avoid the peak fire danger conditions of the afternoon. From that time on it was a case of "declared war" against fire. It was not until the 1960s, ecologists began to realise that fire was not the enemy and the forest needed fire to reduce dead fuels and remove the millions of young regenerating trees. Heavy fuels loads create high intensity fires which are impossible to control and cause harm to the forest by scorching the soil and killing the larger trees through running crown fires. Fire in the U.S. is often regarded as the enemy and fire fighting is a glamorised occupation with heroic feats against the enemy performed by "Smokejumpers" and "Hotshot' crews. The debate within the U.S. to let naturally caused (lightning) fires play out their role in nature without human interference is strongly debated as are the policies of fuel reduction burning.


In New Zealand the moist and mild maritime climate aids decomposition as the means of reducing fuel loading and recycling nutrients. Fuel reduction burning and regular fire is not a requirement to maintain forest health. The exception to this may be the tussock grasslands of the South Island. Fire was used destructively by early pioneers to clear large tracts of forest land in New Zealand and is also used as a land management tool in a controlled manner today. In New Zealand fire fighting is seen only as a job to be done with little glamour or prestige associated to the occupation.


New Zealand has a relatively mountainous and broken terrain compared with the majority of the United States, western Rockies aside, and has a maritime climate compared to the U.S. Continental type climate. Variations in summer weather almost certainly determine that only parts of New Zealand experience dry seasons and extreme fire dangers at any one time. This is also true within the U.S. although the fire danger tends to shift from region to region depending on the time of the year.


New Zealand experiences on average 1500 to 2000 wildfires annually compared with the United States ten‑year average, of 66,000 or the 2000 ‑year total of 90,674. New Zealand has on average an area of 15,000 to 20,000 hectares burnt annually compared with 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 hectares destroyed annually in the U.S. New Zealand gets few large fires and very seldom gets more than one large fire of greater than 400 hectares occurring at one time. In the U.S. however there could be 50 or more fires greater than 400 hectares burning at one time during a bad season as well as thousands of small fires. In early August 2000 there were 99 large uncontrolled fires burning at the same time. Nearly all fires in New Zealand are caused through human interference whereas in the U.S. dry lightning is the cause of a large number of the fires.


The recognised fire season in New Zealand is normally from October to April while in the U.S. the fire season shifts around the country and runs for close to ten months. Duration of individual fires contributes significantly to the way New Zealand and the U.S. have geared their fire management systems. In New Zealand because of fuel type, topography and weather variation, most fires are of short duration. They usually spread quickly in an initial run before being contained. It is not common to have regular long campaign fires that require large Incident Management Teams with fire fighting crews on site for lengthy periods. In the U.S. it is normal to have Incident Management Teams deployed at fires for longer periods of time. New Zealand does experience large vegetation fires on occasions but because of their irregularity, the lack of practice at incident management make it more difficult and demanding for those involved.


New Zealand's legislative framework to deal with rural fire control appears relatively simple compared with the U.S. The Forest & Rural Fires Act 1977, the Forest & Rural Fire Regulations 1979 & the New Zealand Fire Service Act 1975 determine that there is one national urban fire service called the New Zealand Fire Service and three categories of Rural Fire Authority ‑ Territorial Authorities, Department of Conservation and Rural Fire Districts. There are 109 Rural Fire Authorities and their role is to manage all fire prevention, fire mitigation and fire suppression activity in the physical land area for which they have jurisdiction. The National Rural Fire Authority was formed in 1990 and is a small group that provides coordination and support to Rural Fire Authorities and it administers the legislation relating to rural fire. Prior to 1987 the New Zealand Forest Service managed rural fire legislation and effectively underwrote rural fire management in New Zealand.


The Zealand Fire Service is urban based, is focused on structural fire fighting but is the first response to the majority of fires, structural or vegetation, irrespective of their location. In rural areas, the New Zealand Fire Service is acting as an agent. The Rural Fire Authority takes over control of fires from the New Zealand Fire Service if the fire occurs within its area and where the fire is significant and lasts longer than one hour. Most fires being small and of short duration are handled at a local level. Larger fires require support from other Rural Fire Authorities within their specific region and the Rural Fire Authority responsible also manages these. The National Rural Fire Authority is the agent to provide coordination and support for the large prolonged fire and the National Rural Fire Officer may declare a Regional Fire Emergency if a fire is affecting more than one authority area. There is legally only one Rural Fire Authority responsible for any fire and this provides clarity to command and control. The mechanisms and procedures to effectively redeploy resources nationally are still in the developmental stages as is the concept of having set Incident Management Teams to deploy to incidents. Determining the "Lead Agency" and getting on with the job is relatively simple in New Zealand.


The size, complexity and duration of the fire situation in the U.S. provide for a large well‑structured and organised industry in comparison to New Zealand. The U.S. has 50 states each with its own state government, a federal government, and a large number of land management and fire management agencies. There are thousands of individual fire departments or fire fighting agencies in the U.S. as well as many private companies in the business of fire fighting. Wildland fire fighting has its roots in the U.S. Forest Service and fire management practices have been followed by other federal agencies including Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Department of Defence. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) becomes involved in nationally "declared" disasters and is largely involved in funding. At a lower level, State and Local government agencies and private agencies and associations add to the complexity and determination of responsibility.


The National Wildfire Coordination Group (NWCG) is the group whose purpose is to improve the coordination and effectiveness of wildland fire activities and provide a forum to resolve issues. This organisation is formed under the direction of the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture and is composed of representatives of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service. The equivalent coordination group in New Zealand is the National Rural Fire Advisory Committee formed under the direction of the National Rural Fire Officer, with representatives from Department of Conservation, New Zealand Fire Service, New Zealand Defence, Local Government, Forest Owners Association and Federated Fanners Inc.


National wildfire coordination in the U.S. is further administered through the National Interagency Coordination Centre in Boise, Idaho. This is where federal wildland fire agencies coordinate the movement of fire fighting resources between various federal, regional and zone dispatch centres. A daily summary of the national fire activity from the previous day is prepared. Where a number of incidents occur in a region an Area Command is established to oversee the management of several incidents in the area. Area Command sets priorities, allocates critical resources, and ensures incidents are effectively managed. Multiagency Coordination Groups (MAC) are formed when leaders of different agencies or jurisdictions meet to discuss and set common goals. The MAC group's role is to coordinate and not to "command or control", and their strength lies in.' the ability to cooperate and compromise in the development of common goals and resolution of conflicts between agencies. Boundaries and "patch protection" do not appear to be an issue in the U.S. with the multiagency culture keen to work together.


After the large fires in Oakland/Berkley Hills in California in 1970, a comprehensive Incident Management System called National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS) was introduced in the U.S. Australia followed this lead in the 1980's following the Ash Wednesday Fires with the introduction of the Australian Interagency Incident Management System (AIIMS).


Although New Zealand accepted the general principles required of incident management it was not until the late 1990's that all emergency organizations adopted the Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS). New Zealand is still in the infancy of implementing the sub‑systems required to collectively provide a total systems approach as demonstrated in the U.S. and Australia. For incident management systems to be implemented effectively there is a requirement to have a number of sub systems. These include a common structure, common terminology, predetermined procedures and facilities, a comprehensive training programme including publications and training resources, qualifications, accreditation and recognition, and finally the supporting technology of common software and systems to make it work. Checking processes to ensure implementation of systems is also required.


The large number of Rural Fire Authorities in New Zealand, the short duration of fire season and the infrequency of large fires means that the fire management roles within Rural Fire Authorities are frequently only part time and add-ons to individuals core jobs. This is also true of the rural fire fighter resources where staff, contract personnel, or volunteers are part‑time.


The U.S. has a thirty‑year start over New Zealand in development and implementation of their Incident Command System (NIIMS). Australia is also a number of years ahead. Sometimes third is best as New Zealand is now well placed to observe, develop, and take the best from the American and Australian systems. The fundamental blue‑print and principles of each of the three systems are complimentary.


The U.S. has 17 trained and qualified Type 1 Incident management Teams and about 30 "short" or Type 11 Incident Management Teams. In addition there is a number of Type 111 Teams. Team members are trained and qualify for specific specialist roles within the teams, undergo regular joint training and simulation, and travel as a unit to any location within the U.S. The teams remain together for a number of years with some minor changes in structure as some individuals transition in or out. A Type I Team can contain over 50 personnel. They cover all of the higher management roles as well as all of the operational and unit position and administration roles. They can include positions down to Divisional Supervisor roles and Safety Officer. When attending incidents the teams receive a formal handover of command from the local jurisdiction and operate for 14‑day periods before leaving, or until the incident is over and the incident is handed back to the locals. Fire fighting personnel at incidents also operate on 14 day shifts. Personnel working within Incident Management Teams need to be compatible with each other, as they have to work together for long periods in often harsh and trying conditions. Usually Incident Management Teams and the fire fighting resources are located in camps where all the facilities are mobile and brought in to service remote operations. National contracts for mobile canteens, showers laundries etc are administered through the National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC) in Boise Idaho. New Zealanders fighting fires in North America during in August 2000 experienced a farmer's meadow at Nine Mile in Montana, which was transformed into a fire, camp servicing 1200 personnel in a matter of days.


Compare this situation to New Zealand where incidents of long duration are irregular and a structured Incident Management Team approach has not yet been developed. Support is usually provided regionally to assist the management of incidents. Fire camps are not common with personnel attending and leaving the fire to return to their homes or to motel/hotel accommodation on a daily basis. Incident Management Team personnel are normally rostered on and off on a 24 or 48 hour cycle.


A combination of factors has contributed to some changes in management approach this summer. The combination of extreme elevated fire dangers in parts of New Zealand and a number of large fires that have burned for prolonged periods, a number of fire management personnel in New Zealand who had first hand experience at the U.S. fires, and the training and initial development of the New Zealand Coordinated Incident Management System were the catalysts for change. For the first time, personnel were grouped into Incident Management Teams and travelled to other regions to assist or take over management of incidents from locals. Comprehensive Incident Action Plans were being developed, and briefings and set protocols were being implemented. One of the first Fire Camps was set up in the Arthur's Pass area and stayed in place for a prolonged period with the Incident Management Team to fight the Cora Lynn fire.


Fire fighting operations in New Zealand rely heavily on "direct' attack as the preferred fire suppression strategy. The use of ground forces keying from an anchor point working within the black using hose lines and hand tools, with aerial attack from medium and some small‑sized helicopters is the norm. Wherever possible, water is used in preference to dry fire fighting methods. New Zealanders in some locations have become expert in efficient use, of limited water resources using a combination of portable dam, puddle pumps and small diameter hose. The combination of smaller fires, reasonable access, proximity to water and a large number of helicopters contribute to the choice of this strategy within New Zealand. It is not common to see a genuine indirect attack undertaken. The construction of firelines by gangs using handtools or using heavy machinery is not as common as it was twenty years ago. The ability, operational skill and effectiveness of the New Zealand rural fire fighter is however equal to the U.S. counterpart.


In the U.S. almost everything pertaining to wildland fire fighting operations is done on a larger scale. A wide range of fire fighting strategies is also employed. Both "direct' and "indirect' attack methods are used with the latter or a combination being preferred. This often involves the deployment of large numbers of fire fighters scraping line with handtools, or the use of heavy machinery to build fireline ahead of or away from the fire edge. "Burning out” between prepared lines and the fire is common practice. Large fixed‑wing aircraft and helicopters drop retardant or water onto areas where there is a need to slow fires or steer them away from properties or other exposed values. Fires regularly occur in mature forests and when this occurs in dry conditions, "spotting” and "slop over” determine that fires are difficult to fully control and will continue to slowly spread until weather' conditions change. The combination of larger slower spreading fires in mature forests where water and access are difficult often dictates the indirect attack strategy. Frequently pure vegetation fire fighting strategies are compromised by the need to protect property with effort being concentrated on a particular part of the fire while the balance is left to burn with little attention. Money seems to be of little object in the USA firefighting effort.


Operational management and standards are similar in both countries. Firefighters from each country could swap roles and quickly adapt to the nuances and peculiarities of the other. Apart from the NZ Fire Service's permanent fire employees, volunteers generally make up the bulk of the fire crew personnel in New Zealand. In the U.S. fire crews are paid and in recent times seasonal firefighting has become a major source of employment to a large number of people. New Zealand fire fighting personnel have a wider range of general firefighting skills whereas the U.S. counterpart is more of a specialist, holding specific accreditation to work in a particular area. Beyond the technical issues, New Zealanders appear to have a different sense of humour and are more direct and pragmatic when dealing with issues compared to the U.S. counterpart who is very measured and extremely polite. The U.S. “zero tolerance" policy may contribute to this difference in demeanor.


Physical appearance and attire of firefighters from both countries is similar. Firefighters in the U.S. normally wear two‑piece trouser and shirt Nomex clothing and quality soft‑toed boots, wear a plain plastic helmet, gloves and carry a day‑pack that contains all of the daily requirements of food, water, spare clothing, as well as the required fire survival shelter. The New Zealand counterpart wears a one‑piece coverall, not as comfortable steel toe‑cap boots, a quality helmet that might include visor and ear muffs, and individual accessories of gloves, goggles or bum bag to carry small quantities of food and water to sustain the fire fighter between meal breaks or normally until the fire is out. The New Zealand fire fighter does not carry a fire survival shelter like the U.S. counterpart. Concern that firefighters may be inclined to take undue risks if they are carrying a fire shelter is the reason for the "no shelter" policy in New Zealand.


All personnel involved in any role in the U.S. fire fighting operation must have accreditation to undertake their appointed role and must also have completed and passed a specific fitness test. Competency standards are being introduced in New Zealand and although fitness and health standards are on the agenda, their implementation is still some way off. Safety awareness and safe working practices are paramount and underpin all management and operational decisions and activities within U.S. wildland fire fighting operations. This is predicated on the history of fire fighter deaths and the extremely hazardous firefighting environment. In New Zealand, fire safety is considered the responsibility of all personnel but perhaps needs review to ensure it is more formally adopted into management processes.


Benefit gained and lessons learnt


Experiencing the inner workings of firefighting in the U.S. provided an opportunity to examine the practices employed in both countries. Given the similarities and differences that have evolved in New Zealand and U.S. fire fighting operations, what are some of the lessons and benefits learnt.


  1. New Zealand fire fighters are as operationally proficient as their U.S. counterparts; however, they need to keep an open mind when selecting fire fighting strategies and operational fire fighting methods. Direct attack using some application of water with additive is the tried and tested practice in New Zealand. Indirect attack options are seldom considered and the use of large ground‑based machinery and dry fire fighting with hand tools are options that could be used to effect on occasions.


  1. Observing the complex, prolonged, large‑scale incidents has given the New Zealanders an insight on how the next stage of CIMS implementation in New Zealand can be progressed. Further development and enhancement of the sub‑systems is required to achieve the required total systems approach. This includes the clear definition of duties and responsibilities of incident management units and the positions below the primary management roles of Planning/Intelligence Manager, Operations Manager and Logistics Manager. It can also include the introduction of generic written Incident Action Plan templates and briefing processes, resource tracking and management, and administration systems. These may be manual “T” Card paper systems or computer models to keep costs and maintain status of resources. This may be achieved by adopting either the U.S. or Australian systems. There is little point in reinventing systems and many advantages can be gained through mirroring others. Not least of which is the recognition of qualifications and accreditation at national and international levels.


  1. New Zealand can learn much from the concept of a national approach to the implementation of Incident Management Teams and the co‑ordination of effort through Area Command. There would first be a need to involve and gain support and commitment from the rural fire industry in New Zealand. Following the selection of the teams, there is also a need for to provide the necessary courses and resources for teams to upskill for their individual IMT specialist positions before they can train and operate together. Utilising existing U.S. or Australian training programmes and standards would be the obvious direction to take. Finally there would be a need to develop a national coordination and response protocol to deploy these Incident Management Teams. Mentoring and bringing new personnel into teams in training or understudy roles would be important factors to consider for ongoing development of IMTs.


  1. An additional focus on safety is required within the New Zealand incident management process beyond the present situation of safety being everyone's responsibility and the appointment of a Safety Officer as one of the Incident Controllers support personnel. This may include the requirement to consider the key safety points when determining incident objectives and strategies, the inclusion of a specific safety page within written Incident Action Plans, and the formal adoption of "on job” or "tailgate" safety briefings or discussions. The formal adoption of LCES, or LACES ‑ Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety Zones, with the "A" in LACES standing for Anchorpoints or Awareness. In the U.S., aircraft management is a particular area where specialists are employed and where there is a strong orientation towards safety. A review of systems, procedures and competency requirements as well as upskilling of personnel specifically within the area of aircraft management is required in New Zealand.


  1. The need to review health and, fitness requirements within New Zealand's rural fire industry and to place environmental considerations high on the list in rural fire management. Although a complex issue, the development of some standards for health and fitness for all fire fighting personnel could be introduced in time.


  1. New Zealand needs to be more vigilant and adopt, as is done in the U.S., a checking process to ensure that there are no environmental mishaps like spillage of fuel or additives into waterways during fire fighting operations and that there is only minimal damage to the environment. In the U.S., rehabilitation of fire sites and restoration activities are part of the fire suppression function and are carried out as part of the fire fighting operation immediately after the fire is contained.


  1. Given the diminishing resource of fire personnel within New Zealand, there is a need to develop strategies to ensure that New Zealand fire management agencies can continue to muster sufficient fire fighting resources, particularly at large protracted fire incidents. This may involve the implementation of some form of seasonal firefighter system similar to the U.S. and also could include the use of locals like agricultural, forestry and local government personnel and contractors, not only as fire fighters per se but for transportation, administration and other support functions.


Many of the benefits gained and lessons learnt from the U.S. experience were incident management or systems related, and accrued from working at large and complex incidents for a period of time. Specific details have not been covered within this paper that underpin tile total system. These include the development of competency or Red Card systems, Incident Action Plan and briefing formats, communication and Comm Plans templates, changeover and demobilisation procedures , Aerial and Ground procedural and support systems, Information or Supply procedures, Situation unit, FARSITE programme for prioritisation and planning fire, expanded despatch systems or Area Command co‑ordination and direction.


It is clearly evident the ten New Zealanders who assisted the U.S. at the fires of 2000 gained immensely from the experience and are already implementing many of the lessons learned.