Rural Firefighters

fire units aerial



The organisation of rural fire firefighters in New Zealand is considerably more diverse than that of the urban firefighters of the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS). The latter is a national body, and delivery of service is through fire brigades, some paid but mostly volunteer. The nearest equivalent in the rural fire service are voluntary rural fire forces (VRFFs), first defined in the 1979 Forest and Rural Fires Regulations, and now in Section 36 of the 2005 Regulations. VRFFs can be registered with the National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA), but are subject to the control and direction of the Rural Fire Authority of the Rural Fire District (RFD) in which they are based. Unlike the NZFS, the NRFA has no responsibility for delivery of fire service. And, again unlike the NZFS, the VRFF Controller does not have the legal responsibility that a brigade Chief Fire Officer has for delivery in his (urban) district. Instead, it is the RFA that has that legal responsibility in its (rural) district, with its Principal Rural Fire Officer (PRFO) in operational charge.  Section 36 requires that a VRFF must include at least one warranted RFO so that the powers of the PRFO can be delegated to that person in the absence of the PRFO.

There are about 220 VRFFs in the country, covering some 3,500 volunteer firefighters. A few could be more accurately described as retained as they receive payment for service. This is more common when attending out-of-district fires. Most VRFFs act like volunteer fire brigades in their country areas, attending property fires, medical emergencies and motor vehicle accidents, as well as vegetation fires. Since the formation of the NZFS in 1976, there has been little rationalisation between the two services. However, unlike in some other countries, there is no strict demarcation of district boundaries, and NZFS appliances are usually turned out to incidents in RFDs. A small minority of VRFFs solely fight vegetation fires, and these are the principal focus of the rural fire legislation, and the RFAs. The Fire Service Act under which the NZFS brigades operate is primarily concerned with structures fires and other emergencies. However, this functional distinction between the two bits of governing legislation is implemented on a territorial basis, an anomaly that is overcome with good will and co-operation.

VRFFs are the primary contribution to the rural fire service from territorial local authorities. Some councils also have paid employees organised for vegetation fire response. Similarly, the Department of Conservation, Defence and forestry companies have trained staff or contractors that are expected to forego their normal duties and respond as rural firefighters should the need arise. In total, the number of rural firefighters is about the same as the urban firefighters of the NZFS.

The following links or histories are available:

unit name formed location RFA
Ahuroa VRFF 1996 Ahuroa, Auckland Rodney District Council
Athol VRFF 1971 Athol, Southland Southern RFA
Arthur's Pass VRFF 1987 Arthur's Pass, Cant. Selwyn District Council
Kawau Island VRFF 1997 Kawau Island, Auckland Rodney District Council
Lees Valley VRFF     Waimakariri DC
Onewhero VRFF 1984 Onewhero, Tuakau Auckland RFA
Pines Beach VRFF     Waimakariri DC
Pirongia VRFF 1992   Waimakariri DC
Taupo VRFF 2007 Taupo Taupo RFA
Shelly Beach VRFF 1975 Shelly Beach, Auckland Rodney District Council
Waikawa VRFF 1988 Waikawa, Southland Southern RFA
Waikuku Beach VRFF     Waimakariri DC
Wainuiomata Bushfire Force 1970 Wainuiomata, Wellington Hutt City Council
Waitakere VRFF 1984 Waitakere Township, Ak. Auckland RFA
Wellington City RFF 1993 Tawa, Wellington Wellington City Council
Woodend VRFF     Waimakariri DC

Rural Firefighter Accidents

Like those in Australia and Canada, firefighters are not equipped with the fire shelter tents that US firefighters carry to protect thenselves in the event of an entrapment. Instead, reliance is placed on training to avoid dangerous situations; a more benign and predictable fire environment obviously helps. In 1993, Millman1 of the NRFA surveyed historical records to compile lists of incidents that resulted in serious injuries or 'near misses'. The conclusion was that serious accidents involving rural firefighters in New Zealand have fortunately been rare. Given this rarity, and the diverse nature of rural fire fighting in the past, it is certain that these lists are incomplete. The following tables summarise the known incidents.


rural fire fatality incidents

date location incident fatalities non-fatal
fuels contributing
19.12.1895 Whakaroa, East Coast burnoff 1     wind change
15.1.1908 Cashmere Hills, Cant. wildfire 1 firefighter   tussock working alone
1948/49 Motueka wildfire

1 firefighter

  pine forest fire run
1978/80 Wairoa burn off 1 farmer      
26.11.1973 Little Malaya, Oxford, Cant. wildfire 2 air crew    

Bell 47G helicopter crash

11.2. 1980 Willow Flat, Hawkes Bay burn off 2 firefighters 1 cut kanaka unstable weather
1980? Mt Thomas, Cant. burn off 1 firefighter   tussock/cut manuka working alone
10.10.1990 Waihopai, Marl. burn off 1 farmer   matagouri wind change
19.3.2000 Morrinsville MVA 1 firefighter 1 firefighter   tanker rolled on way to veg. fire
26.12.2008 Hicks Bay, East Coast MVA 1 firefighter 1 firefighter   fire truck rolled on way to MVA
8.4.2009 Willowby, S. Cant. escaped burn 1 firefighter   solitary pine tree crushed by fallen snag
10.11.2009 Hadfield Beach, Auckland burn off 1 landowner      
30.11.2011 Matai Bay, Karikari, Northland wildfire pilot and DOC ranger     chopper went down in sea
3.9.14 Cromwell burnoff 1 farmer      
15.10.14 Mt Alexander, Hurunui burnoff 1 farmer   scrub, not out of control smoke inhalation?


'near miss' rural fire incidents resulting in burn injuries

date location number topography weather fuels contributing
Aug 1950 Taieri Va., Otago 1



matagouri, tussock wind change
Aug 1958 Central Otago 1 steep dry&NW wind tussock wind change
Sep 1966 Roseneath, Well. 1 steep light wind matagouri, tussock gully+wind change
1967 Lower Hutt 2* steep   gorse fire run
1967/68 Patangaumu 1       fire run
Feb 1967 Tarawera, Rot. 6        
1968 Wainui 2 steep   gorse  
1970 Pataruru, Waik. 1 steep     entrapment
1971 Caitlins, Southland 1 gully     fire run
1970's Te Kuiti 1        
1970's Coromandel 1 steep calm gorse/fern flare up
Sep 1972 Totara Peaks, Nel. 1 steep calm matagouri, tussock wind increase
1972/73 Akatawera, Well. 1* steep calm   fire underground
18.1.1974 Pouakani, Waikato 2 wide basin calm   fire whirl
1980 Pureora, Waikato 1   high wind fern flare up
Jan 1983 Wellington 3* steep high wind gorse fire run
2.4 1985 Eastbourne, Well. 2 steep mod. wind burnt gorse blow up
9.4 1987 Akatawera, Well. 2* steep   gorse blow up
1987/88 Mt Oliver, Marl. 1 steep   gorse fire run
Apr 1988 Akatawera, Well. 1 steep mod. wind gorse fire run
Jan 1989 Wellington 1* steep   grass fire run
22.2.1989 Pt Howard, Well. 2* steep high wind gorse fire run
24.3.1998 Bucklands, Otago 3 steep mod. wind burnt scrub blow up

* denotes urban firefighters

1. I. Millman, 'Firefighting tragedies and near misses', FRFANZ Conference, Wellington, 1993.