The End of the New Zealand Forest Service

The Weaknesses Appear
Rural Fire Services Review (Hensley Report) and Implementation
National Rural Fire Authority
Fire Training
Fire Research and Development
Firefighting Organisations
Emergency Services Reviews
Fire Services Review
Fire and Emergency New Zealand
Overseas Deployments

The End of the New Zealand Forest Service

On the 31st of March 1987, the New Zealand Forest Service was disestablished  with the loss of about 3,000 jobs. Some of the staff were moved to three newly established organisations: the NZ Forestry Corporation Ltd, Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Forestry. The NZFC was handed the state production forests, more than half of the plantation forests of NZ, logging operation and associated land. The intent was for the Corporation to turn the State’s forestry assets into a successful commercial business; if necessary, by selling them off. It was later split into four separate businesses in 1990, one of these being Timberlands West Coast Ltd that was established as a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) to run the West Coast indigenous production forests.  Environmental and conservation functions were taken over by the DOC. It gained responsibility for about one third of the area of New Zealand, encompassing National Parks, reserves, and much indigenous forest. However, fire was only one aspect of the protection that DOC was required to provide for New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage.


The policy advice, biosecurity functions and remaining Crown forests on leased Maori land passed to the Ministry of Forestry. It  became responsible for the administration of the legislation and oversight of rural fire control. It did not have a fire suppression role, but many of the experienced Forest Service personnel were moved to the Ministry. In particular, the Chief Fire Control Officer, Neill Cooper, became the MOF Chief Protection Officer. In 1992, with the reorganisation of Government departmental scientific research, the research function of MOF was split off to set up the Forest Research Institute (now Scion Research), one of ten new Crown Research Institutes. And in 1998, MOF was merged with the Ministry of Agriculture to become the current Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

Other than the State, there were four big companies that owned the bulk of the rest of the plantation forests in New Zealand. While these big players in forestry were able to provide their own fire protection, it was the NZ Forest Service that had provided an umbrella under which rural areas and the small forest owners sheltered for many years. With the demise of the Forest Service, that umbrella was gone.

The Weaknesses Appear

Even as arrangements were being made to end the Forest Service, events were conspiring to realise the fears that rural firefighters perceived over the loss of the Forest Service expertise. On 4 February 1987, the hot, dry winds of Canterbury rekindled a fire at Burnt Hill, Oxford, that resulted in a 16 km run along the Waimakariri River, and threatened the Eyrewell Forest.  It  was reported that at one stage the fire moved at over 12 kpm. The NZ Fire Service assumed responsibility for managing the fire. Over 900 people assisted, including  200 army personnel, but at least half were involved in shifting stock and property. 1600 ha of farmland were burnt, two homes were lost, along many sheds and barns, and 1200 sheep. The fire perimeter extended 32 km, and came within 100 m of the Eyrewell Forest. At about the same time, power lines sparked to generate two large fires near further south at Rakaia. 40 to 50 hectares of paddocks burnt, razing a hay barn and four shelter belts.  150 people fought these blazes with eight water tankers and 3 fire units. Another fire at Pendarves was limited to about 25 ha by six appliances from Rakaia and Ashburton.

The drought that Canterbury (and other parts of the country) was to last two years, driven by an El Nino phase. Dr Neil Cherry, the Lincoln College meteorologist, in analysing the weather for 1988, observed that

“For the year the rainfall at 308.6 mm was the lowest ever recorded at Lincoln. The previous lowest annual total was 338 mm in 1915. It was also the lowest July to December total with 126.1 mm compared to the previous lowest of 139 mm in 1915. The mean annual temperature of 12.4 oC is the highest since the record of 12.9 oC was recorded in 1924. Allowing for the fact that the climate station was highly sheltered before the Second World War, 1988 was warmer than the previous recorded “hot” year. The mean annual wind speed was the highest since reliable wind speed records began in 1896. Sunshine hours at 2366 was the highest recorded for Christchurch and the highest of any recorded at Lincoln since sunshine records began in 1930.

Thus 1988 was the record windiest, sunniest, hottest and driest year.”

As a consequence, there was a string of bad vegetation fires in Canterbury, and elsewhere in the country, over the 1988/89 season. In all but one of these Canterbury fires, the Fire Service assumed command, and complaints were made about the expanded role expected of them.  This was not necessarily a direct consequence of loss of Forest Service expertise, but a sign that many rural fire authorities had been complacent, sheltering under the Fire and Forest Services’ umbrellas. Now exposed, their resources were individually inadequate for larger vegetation fires, and together they lacked  the cohesion to mount credible combined operations.


The Ministry of Forestry had anticipated the lack of cohesion following the loss of the Forest Service, and began setting up regional rural fire coordination committees in 1987. 17 were in place at the time of the ‘Prevent Rural Fires Convention’ held in Wellington 10-11 May 1989, but they did not cover all of the country, and there were  teething problems with some of the committees. One plea that Alan Flux, MOF, made at the convention was for ”greater involvement and recognition [to be] given to Volunteer Rural Fire Forces….and stronger provision for financial assistance.” At that time he compiled a list of 100 county and district council RFAs (total area 26,348,000 ha, of which these RFAs were responsible for fire in 13,446,119 ha). In total, these held a population of 897,422 people. The 100 RFAs quoted did not include city councils (presumably covered by the NZ Fire Service), and these are now also RFAs. The total area of NZ is 26,867,600 ha. There were 24 Rural Fire Districts (1,013,360 ha). NZ Forestry Corporation had 14 fire districts (741,552 ha), and Ministry of Defence was divided into 7 districts (66,084 ha).

While the Ministry may not have had an operational role, it was quite apparent that the old hands were active in the management of the 1988 Dunsandel fire, effectively implementing a management system that is easily recognised as the coordinated incident management system (CIMS) that was some years away from being introduced by rural fire, and adopted by all emergency providers in New Zealand.

The old hands had also anticipated the loss of Forest Service fire fighting capability, and acted. In 1986, Chief Fire Control Officer Neill Cooperconvened regional meetings to promote the formation of the Forest and Rural Fires Association of New Zealand Inc. to retain that expertise. Founded in 1987, FRFANZ’ immediate task was was facilitate control at fires  with the provision of a suitable command structure to co-ordinate multi-agency responses, and introduction of standard hire rates for specialised fire equipment (March 1988). Senior fire officers also contributed to the Code of Practice that was to come. 

The Government ordered the newly-appointed Domestic and External Security Coordinator, Gerald Hensley, to carry out a Rural Fire Services Review and report by 26 June 1989. Speaking to the May 1989 ”Prevent Rural Fires Convention’, both Hensley and others anticipated the drafting of a new Forest and Rural Fires Act. Based on cost escalation, the Minister of Forestry, Hon. Peter Tapsell, did not favour a handing over of rural fire to the urban fire service.

Rural Fire Services Review (Hensley Report) and Implementation

The DESC Coordinator formed a review team with representatives from the Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Forestry, Department of Conservation and the NZ Fire Service Commission. A discussion paper was produced, and draft recommendations were put to the Cabinet on 26 June 1989. Approval was given for public consultation, and the team invited submissions and held six public meetings.  A Fire Service takeover was not recommended on the grounds that it neither had the statutory obligation nor the training to deal with rural fires. Common ground was established in that rural fire services would continue to be provided at a local level, but there was a need for regional coordination, and that a central authority should be established for standards, audits and national awareness campaigns. A new structure was proposed and the service would need to continue to rely upon volunteers for fire suppression. Funding was a problem, and access to the Rural Fire Fighting Fund needed to be opened up.  It was thought that the necessary changes could be fiscally neutral.

Gerald Hensley recalled his review in 2000. The Hensley Report went to Cabinet on 23 August 1989, and  the Government Cabinet Policy Committee agreed to the release of it on 8 November. It also decided that responsibility for national rural fire coordination should be transferred from the Ministry of Forestry to the NZ Fire Service Commission by 1 October 1990; in the latter role, the NZFSC would also be called the National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA). Responsibility for the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977 would transfer to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). It directed the formation of a Working Group on Rural Fire Services to report to the Minister of Internal Affairs by 1 March 1990 on an appropriate structure within the NZ Fire Service, and  appropriate funding arrangements for that structure.

The Working Group, chaired by Murray Darroch of DIA, reported to the Minister of Internal Affairs on 15 March 1990. It recommended that the NRFA be in place by 1 July 1990, and laid out its functions. A National Rural Fire Advisory Committee, composed by representatives from organisations with skills and knowledge of rural firefighting, should be formed to advise the NZFSC. A non-operational rural fire division should be established, to be managed by a National Rural Fire Officer (NRFO) who would report directly to the Chief Executive of the NZ Fire Service.  The Rural Fire Fighting Fund should be extended to recognise three categories of fires, with 95% of costs above an excess to be met by the Fund, and recoveries sought where possible. The Fund had originally been enacted in law as part of the Fire Service Amendment Act 19865. It  would continue to be funded from the NZ Fire Service Levy, but supplemented by DOC each year. It was agreed that fires originating in commercial forests would not be covered by the Fund. Eligibility to the Fund would be restricted to RFAs having approved fire plans. Legislative changes would be required to both the Fires Service Act 1975 and the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977. At the time, Fire Service Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1989 was underway, and  it was suggested that the necessary changes, particularly including financial considerations, could be incorporated into this amendment bill.  Complementary minor amendments were also planned for the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977.

The Government agreed but all of the legislative changes had not been passed by Parliament before it was dissolved for the November 1990 General Election. This resulted in a change of party on the Treasury benches. The new Government reconvened Parliament and, with the rural fire reforms added to urgent legislation, they were passed through all remaining stages and signed into law on 21 December 1990. The expanded Rural Fire Fighting Fund was backdated to 1 October 1990.

National Rural Fire Authority

A Transition Group, composed of MOF and NZFS Officers, was set up to implement the Review recommendations for the transfer of responsibilities. The position of NRFO was advertised by the NZFSC, and Murray Dudfield of the MOF who had been on the Review team, was appointed, starting 1 July 1990. Curiously (see above), at that stage, he had no statutory authority until the end of the year. His staff at the NZFS National Office in Wellington numbered three. Although the Review  had recommended that Regional councils should be required to appoint Regional Rural Fire Officers to carry out regional coordination functions, including the setting up of regional rural fire committees, this had proved impractical. The regions had neither the immediate local concerns or the national responsibility. Instead, four full-time Managers Rural Fire (expanded to 5 in 1995) were appointed, reporting to the NRFO. While the review of rural firefighting had been underway, the Government had forced the amalgamation of local authorities in 1989, with over 230 authorities being reduced to 92 (comprising 74 territorial local authorities (TLAs), 12 regional councils and 6 special purpose authorities).

The NZFS Commission assumed responsibility for the NRFA on 1 January 1991. With that, the elements of the present-day rural fire service were essentially in place, and a series of measures were introduced to evolve its effectiveness:

 December 1990, NRFA rural fire training advisory group meets for first time.
 1991, NRFA Advisory Committee established. Representatives from Forest Owners Assn (FOA), DOC, Local Government Assn, Min. Defence, Fire Service and Federated Farmers.
 1 July 1991, Rural Fire Management Code of Practice. This required all RFAs to have approved Fire Plans in place in accordance with the Code on that date. Approval was to be by Regional Rural Fire Co-ordinating Committees (RRFC). Failure to conform with requirements such as having approved plans would prohibit access to reimbursement of suppression costs from the Rural Fire Fighting Fund. Fire Plans were also subject to periodic audit by NRFA Managers. The Fund met $6.26M costs between 1991 and 1997.
 The RFMCOF specified a standard constitution for the RRFCs. These 19 Committees replaced those that MOF had established, and they were to become serviced by the NRFA Managers Rural Fire.
 1991/92 season, NRFA and FOA carry out a joint rural fire protection publicity ‘Keep it green’ campaign. ‘Bernie’ was to become a regular summertime TV character.
 November 1991, 107 fire plans have approval.
 April 1992, under Canadian scientist ME Alexander, rural fire research resumes after absence of 13 years. Joint funding was obtained for 2 years, and Alexander was seconded for a year at Forest Research Institute, Rotorua.
 August 1992, Min. Int. Affairs, Graeme Lee, announces an annual $400K Grant Assistance package for a 50% subsidy for RFAs to purchase fire equipment and personal protection equipment (PPE) for volunteer rural fire forces (VRFFs). The VRFFs had to registered with NRFA and (later) had to adopt a Standard Constitution.
 1 July 1993, Grant Assistance boosted to $800,000 and expanded: PPE subsidy to be 75%; up to $10K per station to be made available for establishment of a network of remote automatic weather (RAW) stations around the country (by 1999, there were over 120 RAWS); 50% subsidy for approved costs (maximum $50K) towards converting ex-NZFS appliances for use by VRFFs; up to 100% subsidy for appliance land mobile radios (LMRs, being introduced by NZFS) and station alerting equipment.
 October 1992, the excess of RFFF claims was reduced from $5000 to $1000. 95% of the RFA suppression costs beyond the excess could be met from the Fund. The NRFA and the RFA would jointly pursue reimbursement if blame for the fire start could be established.
 January 1994, Laser Disc training simulator introduced
 1996/97, the first of an ongoing number of strategy studies are completed. These included RFD administration grants, and discussions of reducing the number of RFAs through forming enlarged RFDs.
 1996/97, proposed integration of RFA fire statistics into a Fire Service database. While there had been an apparent quantum step in the number of fires from 1993/94 season, this was a consequence of fuller reporting. FIRS was running in 2000. 
 November 1998, Co-ordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) adopted for all emergency service providers, including Police, in NZ. This was an NRFA initiative, borrowing heavily from overseas management systems.
 SITE (Shared Information Technology Environment): Comms Centres, LMR, pagers, incident ground radios
 2000/01, first deployment of National Incident Management Teams at 4 large incidents. Most Regions were later to setup RIMTs.
 2000, first deployment of fire officers to USA. This begins negotiations for formal agreements between authorities in USA (National Wildfire Co-ordinating Group, 2001), Canada and Australia (Dept of Sustainability and the Environment) and NRFA for mutual assistance.
 2001, UN Year of the Volunteers: NRFA strikes a medal ‘NZ Rural Fire Services’ for issue to rural fire service volunteers. 
 2001, firefighter fitness tests being introduced.
 March 2002, RFMCOF revised.
 2002, Min. Int. Affairs, George Hawkins, boosts Grant Assistance by $500,000 for the year 2002/03 to start a subsidy programme for new rural fire appliances for RFAs. Unlike those of the NZFS, these are 4WD and painted yellow. About 6 each year were provided.
 2003, new computer software for FWSYS system to access for daily fire weather and RuralNet for fire information.
 2003, exclusion of Grant Assistance for VRFFs conditionally removed .
 5 July 2005, the 1979 Regulations are superceded by the Forest and Rural Fires Regulations 2005. The management provisions of the new Regulations are objective-based, and are used to replace the prescriptive requirements of the RFMCOP. The Fire Service Act was also amended: instead of by audit, Fire Plans are to be verified by operational assessments, and consideration to be given to fire prevention, not just suppression ie. the ‘4Rs’ are to apply.
 2007, seasonal fire teams become available for long duration incidents. Unlike in the US, these are only be paid when deployed to a fire.
 2 November 2009, release of strategy to promote formation of enlarged RFDs. The merger of RFAs into enlarged RFDs had stalled over 2004-08 due to review uncertainty. By 2010/11, the number of RFAs had been reduced from 90 to 78 by amalgamations.

After 24 years, Murray Dudfield retired as NRFO on 30 June 2014, and was replaced by Kevin O’Connor from DOC. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2015, Murray was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit, having previously been made a Member in 1999.


Fire Training


Government passed the Industry Training Act 1992 to raise the skill level of the work force of New Zealand. This enabled industries to form Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) that would be responsible for training and setting standards in the industries they represented. An emphasis was on-the-job training. A Fire and Rescue Services Advisory Group  met for first time on 10 June 1993. On

Lake Okareka volunteers training

 11 May 1994, a subcommittee of the Group met with the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) and the Education & Training Support Agency (ETSA) to begin the process of forming an ITO. The Fire and Rescue Services ITO (FRSITO) was registered on 8 May 1995, and had representatives from all areas of the fire and rescue services.  All training has been modularised into a series of Unit Standards of a range of levels, with industry Assessors to judge the competencies of candidates. A moderation system was also introduced to ensure a uniform standard of assessment throughout the country. Moderators are now employees of FRSITO. National Certificates and Diplomas in Vegetation Fire Fighting have also been formulated, and subsidised Student Training Programmes are available to assist RFAs in meeting the costs of training. 

The disparate nature of the rural fire service meant that the advent of FRSITO was more important to it than to the NZFS. Like the old Forest Service, the urban fire service, being a national body, had already developed a uniform system of training throughout the country. However, the universal nature of Unit Standards enabled mutual recognition of training, and facilitated movement of personnel between services and authorities

Fire Research and Development


While the Forest Research Institute had been established in 1947, it was not until the appointment of John Valentine, a forester, in the latter 1970s that research into modern fire danger and behaviour systems blossomed briefly. A fire danger rating system, combining weather data and weights of standard ‘sticks’ had been used since 1948. Valentine examined the Canadian Fire Weather Index system (FWI), which was adapted for NZ latitudes3 and trialled in 1979, and adopted in 1980. In essence, it is a moisture accounting system using daily measurements of weather data, and its application was greatly assisted by the introduction of remote automatic weather stations from 1993.

Research was abandoned for 13 years, and reinstated through the efforts of the NRFA in April 1992 with the secondment of Canadian Marty Alexander for a year at Forest Research Institute, Rotorua, and Grant Pearce was appointed to a permanent position in June. The initial research drive was to complete the adoption of the FWI system for fire danger rating, and begin the adaptation of the Canadian fire behaviour system. This required the start of a series of experimental burns in NZ vegetation types that is ongoing. In August 1993, burns were conducted in pine slash around Tokoroa, and the first burn in gorse was done at Wainuiomata on 6 April 1994. A series of Fire Technology Transfer Notes and research report began flowing from 1994. Training in fire behaviour applications began, and the first wildfire study was a retrospective study of a grass fire on the 31 January 1991 at Tikokino4. In 1996/97, a Wildfire Threat Analysis programme was launched.

In 2003, the fire researchers were invited to participate in the Australian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, expanding the effort available. In 2005, the FRI was rebranded as Scion, and had about 6 full-time-equivalents engaged in fire research. In 2008, they introduced software for the calculation of fire behaviour.



Founded in 1987, with DOC’s Kerry Hilliard elected as Chairman and MOF’s Murray Dudfield as Secretary, FRFANZ’s immediate task was was facilitate control at fires  with the provision of a suitable command structure to co-ordinate multi-agency responses, and introduction of standard hire rates for specialised fire equipment in a Technical Bulletin (March 1988). Senior fire officers also contributed to the Code of Practice that was to come. The Senior Fire Officers annual conferences, initiated by the Forest Service, continued along the same exclusive lines, although membership of the Association became diversified. In 1989, Don Geddes (Tasman Forestry) was elected to the Chair (and remained until 2005), and Morrie Geenty (PF Olsen & Co.) was elected Secretary. 

The Wainuiomata Bushfire Force (WBF) joined FRFANZ in 1987. Bill McCabe, WBF Controller, attended the FRFANZ AGM held at the SFO’s Taupo conference in 1989, and got himself elected to the Management Committee. The interest by the WBF in FRFANZ stemmed from the ineligibility of VRFFs to become members of the UFBA; membership was opened up 10 years later in 1998. While everyone knew of ‘fire parties’, no one had an estimate of how many there were nationally, or the total number of rural volunteers. In 1988, with the assistance of MOF, Gavin Wallace of the WBF launched a survey among a list of 125 volunteer rural fire units. The projection suggested 1940 firefighters in total, with some of the units busier than NZFS brigades. As expected, financial support for the units varied enormously. In August 1989, Wallace started a quarterly newsletter The Rural Firefighter to survey respondents, funded by fire equipment firm Phillips & Smith. The first edition reported that the FRFANZ Constitution would be changed at the 1989 AGM  (Taupo) to create a VRFF class of membership. By August 1989, 13 VRFFs had joined FRFANZ, and FRFANZ had adopted the newsletter from the February 1990 issue.

In 1991, the first FRFANZ service medals were presented to rural firefighter, followed by Gold Stars for 25 years of more service in 1995. Also in 1991, the Senior Fire Officers conference held in Rotorua was the first FRFANZ Annual Conference, with attendance open to all members, and a national rural fire competition was reinstated under FRFANZ, running in Wainuiomata. It had last been held under the Forest Service in 1986. The annual FRFANZ Conference in August has evolved to become a well-attended  event, enabling a review of the previous season, and notice of forthcoming changes. The conference is themed, and uses overseas speakers to share their knowledge and experience. Training seminars are frequently organised by NRFA immediately before the conference to make use of the overseas experts. The FRFANZ conference is particularly important because of the diversity of people and sectors making up the rural fire service. In 2001, it was held jointly in  Christchurch with the Australian Bushfire Conference, and in 2007, jointly with the Institute of Fire Engineers in Palmerston North. 

In 2003, the Minister of Internal Affairs, George Hawkins, initiated a modest travel grant to FRFANZ. Since then, FRFANZ has assisted with study travel of two members to Canada, and has organised and led four groups of volunteer firefighters to Australia. The newsletter ran for 12 years until replaced by a website in 2001. By then, membership in FRFANZ by VRFFs was 72, out of a total FRFANZ membership of 245. Overseas deployments of rural firefighters highlighted a deficiency arising from the diversity of the rural fire service. Whereas all tend to wear standard overalls when on the job, there was no standard uniform when appearing in public on other occasions. FRFANZ now has uniform clothing available for rural firefighters to identify with the service.

Veteran firefighter – he started in 1954 – John Ward provided his assessment of how rural fire service had developed since the end of the Forest Service.

Firefighting Organisations

In 1995, the NZFS had divided the country into six administrative regions in which there was 269 Urban Fire Districts (246 are volunteer) and 57 fire brigade auxiliary units. Staff numbered2 2,000 full time employees and 7,000 volunteers. The NZFS had 819 fire vehicles, and it was estimated2 that RFAs had 518, and 11,600 part time firefighters. Local territorial authorities included 58 District Councils, 14 City Councils and 1 County Council. There were 34 Rural Fire Districts (including 6 Defence Rural Fire Districts) covering about 2 million ha, or 8% of the land area. DOC had responsibility for the largest area, about 35%. Annual expenditure of the NZFS was $171M (about 60% on salaries) and estimated to be $16.6M for RFAs. By 2001, there were 109 RFAs in total; the current list can be viewed.

Whereas the NZFS had remained static in number of resources since formation in 1976, the RFAs had grown significantly since being forced to pick up their responsibilities after 1987. A number of new VRFFs were formed to assist the RFAs in this. When the NRFA was formed in 1990, there were 24 VRFFs registered1; a year later, 36, and by 1994, 1462 of the 210 believed to exist were registered.

 Speaking after dinner at the 1993 FRFANZ Conference, retired NZFS CEO Brian Armstrong gave his personal views of the involvement of urban fire with rural fire.  

Emergency Services Reviews

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Graeme Lee, conducted a Ministerial Review of fire services, dated 23 March 1993. His findings were more concerned with the business of the NZFS, including conditions for permanent firefighters and crew manning of appliances, but he did declare that ‘ultimately there must be acceptance that New Zealand should have one total integrated Fire Service provided that this does not add to the total cost’. 

In September 1993, the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of the NZFS and NRFA, Maurie Cummings,  a former policemen, was directed by Government to undertake a review that, among other issues, would consider ‘the present interaction between all agencies that have responsibilities to discharge in providing protection against fire and associated dangers and identify any adjustments to those relationships which would improve the overall economy and efficiency of operations through the elimination of unnecessary duplication’. Cummings conducted an Internal Review involving extensive consultation with, among others, both urban and rural firefighters. At the same time, he directed that an external team undertake an independent review. The latter reported in December 1993, and the report of Internal Review Team of G Summers (urban) and M Dudfield (rural) was published in March 1994.

The Internal Review concluded that the changes implemented by the NRFA were working well, but reducing the number of RFAs by enlarging districts would improve efficiencies. Strong views had been expressed on integrating the two fire services, but the Team believed that these views were focussed on suppression, and integration would overlook the other requirements placed on RFAs. Integration was not warranted. It was however proposed that where Brigades are tasked with suppression of vegetation fires, they should also become registered as VRFFs. The Independent Review also favoured retaining two fire services and rural fire delivery by RFAs, but having a smaller number of them. It also recommended splitting the national NZFS into three independent Fire enterprises.

In his report of 24 February 1994, the CEO rejected the breakup of the NZFS. While agreeing with the Minister’s desire of integrating urban and rural fire services, he saw this as a long-term objective. He was concerned that some RFAs were contracting out rural fire services and, to avoid possible problems, was going to encourage NZFS brigades to contract for this RFA business. This did happen to a limited extent, but had little overall effect on the rural fire service.

The majority of the recommendations impacted on the NZFS with the aim of modernisation and the promotion of fire prevention rather than just focussing on suppression. The intention was to expand the role of the NZFS into a broader emergency service provider. Job losses totalling 490 were proposed, 330 of these to permanent firefighters by new employment agreements that would alter their hours of work and duties.  The NZ Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU) took exception to this and negotiations broke down in December 1995. The stoush became very public. The NZPFU collected sufficient signatures for a citizens’ initiated referendum, held in December 1995, to oppose staff cuts. The NZFS countered by hiring and training 260 ‘community safety personnel’  and placing these CST teams in fire stations. NZPFU members refused to work with them, and some were suspended (April 1996). On 30 July 1997, Roger Estall was controversially appointed Chair of the NZFS Commission, and promptly began a restructure of senior management, intending to revert the focus back to fire suppression. CEO Maurie Cummings resigned in protest 2 months later, followed by some other senior staff. NRFO Dudfield was appointed Acting CEO (until Jean Martin was appointed in June 1998). Estall continued with restructuring plans, proposing to sack 1600 firefighters and have then reapply for 300 fewer positions. A legal injunction was granted in October 1998 to halt this, and  Mrs Martin brokered an accord with the NZPFU that Estall refused to sign in March 1999. The Prime Minister Jenny Shipley became involved, and a reform plan prepared by the Commission was approved by Government on 7 April 1999. Estall was forced to resign on 18 May 1999, and was replaced next day by Margaret Bazley. CEO Mrs Martin resigned one week later. The dispute with the NZPFU continued, and a new employment agreement was not made until June 2001, 9 years after expiry of the old one. The agreement retained the old shift hours, gave the permanent firefighters a pay rise, and saw the absorption of most of the former CST members into their ranks, and into the NZPFU. 

In his address at the 2002 FRFANZ Conference (repeated in 2003), NZFS Commissioner Piers Reid said:

‘I am frequently reminded of the wisdom of the rural fire management framework. It places the primary responsibility on those who best understand the risk – the land managers. This arrangement has great merit. Particularly when compared with some aspects of the urban fire regime. In the urban regime, responsibility for managing structure fire risk somehow got separated from the owners and users of the structures. But in the rural environment, the land owners and users are an integral part of the risk management framework. So things like the fuel load and its conditions can be managed on a daily basis as part and parcel of the ongoing land management operations. Perhaps more importantly, the cost of managing the rural fire risk is constantly referred back to the land and its ability to support the cost. So, rural fire has tended to avoid some of the high fixed cost structures adopted in the urban setting. But that same merit of the rural fire system renders it absolutely reliant on the good will and continued involvement of the rural and forest sectors. Without your involvement and input the framework just would not work. The Commission records its gratitude to you for that involvement’.

Nevertheless, the question of amalgamation of fire services reappeared in July 2006 when the Min. Int. Affairs, Rick Barker, hosted key fire stakeholders to a workshop at Parliament. From those discussions, in April 2007 the Department of Internal Affairs produced a document ‘New Fire Legislation’ that proposed a new Fire and Rescue Act to combine the Fire Service  and Forest and Rural Fires Acts. A new service, the Fire and Rescue Service, would be created. RFAs would remain, but would be limited to dealing with vegetation fire, and would have the option of ceding their responsibilities to the new FRS. VRFFs would have the same status as brigades, and would be part of the FRS. The long-term objective would be a gradual transition to a fully integrated national service. The discussion document also proposed changes to the property insurance levy that had been funding fire services. DIA invited submissions on the proposals, closing 30 June 2007.

368 submissions were received. A summary report on submissions was released in July 2007. There were two broad views: those allied to the NZFS favoured integration of fire services, and rural interests wanted to remain separate. The latter were divided as to retaining the status quo, or moving to regional rural fire districts. There was overwhelming rejection of the proposed funding model. With a change in Government, the new Min. Int. Affairs, Nathan Guy, announced in 2009 that the proposal for integration of services was abandoned.

Fire Services Review

 An Fire Review Panel, chaired by former Minister Paul Swain, was appointed in 2012 to provide independent advice to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Chris Tremain,  about how the Government can achieve: 

  a clear mandate and operating platform for the fire services’ functions;

 effective, efficient fire service operations that will provide value for money in the future; and

 a sustainable, stable and equitable funding system for fire services.

 The devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, which claimed 185 lives, and  the 2010 Pike River disaster, where 29 miners lost their lives, had highlighted the rescue function of the  fire services. Of particular interest to rural firefighters was the inclusion of Dave Adamson, prominent in Southland rural fire, in the four-man panel.  The Panel’s Terms of Reference specified that the Panel was not to provide advice on whether:


 New Zealand needs a national fire service in the form of the NZFS;


the NZFS should maintain its core fire-related roles;


management of fire on forest and rural lands should be provided by rural fire authorities;


the NZFS should be funded by the Crown; and


the industrial relations framework applying to firefighters should be reformed.

Over the latter part of 2012, the Panel invited submissions and held meetings with representatives from organisations and agencies with an interest in the activities of New Zealand’s fire services. The Panel present its report (Swain Report), dated 11 December 2012, to the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the Report of the Fire Review Panel was made public on 7 February 2013.  Among its 55 recommendations, it called for redrafting of the Fire Service and Forest and Rural Fires Acts to reflect expanded roles, but with the latter still focusing on vegetation fires. However, provision was made for rural fire authorities to undertake additional emergency services provided they were accredited to do so by the Commission.  It suggested that Cabinet approve the formation of a Emergencies Services Chief Executives Forum to provide ongoing advice. Provision was also made for the Minister to force amalgamation of RFAs into enlarged RFDs.

 Submissions were invited after the release of the report, and after consultations, Cabinet Government made some initial decisions in September 2013. After that, Ministers decided to widen the scope of the response to build on the work of the Panel and to consider other matters that were outside the Panel’s terms of reference. These other matters include the structure and funding of rural fire services, urban and rural workforce engagement issues and modernising the fire services’ legislation.  The Minister of Internal Affairs was now Peter Dunne, and the DIA, the NZFS and the NRFA were charged with discussing these matters with stakeholders. Drawing from consultations that occurred between December 2014 to April 2015, the DIA released Fires Services Review: Discussion Document in May 2015.

 For the first time, the formation of a national fire service became the preferred option of rural fire stakeholders.  While they may have been several reasons for this, it was clear from the Discussion Document that what was proposed was not a takeover by urban fire, but an amalgamation of fire services in which vegetation fire would continue as a separate function, and that paid full-time rural fire officers (about 150 staff) along with volunteers  would transfer into the new organisation.  In November 2015, Cabinet agreed in principle to unifying 52 rural fire authorities, the NRFA, and the NZFS, with regional committees to provide regional influence.  It was made clear that the changes would be designed to support the rural fire sector as well as the urban sector, and that there would be improved support for volunteers.  The Fire Service and the Forest and Rural Fires Acts would be repealed, and unified legislation would be put in place.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand

The Min. Int. Affairs Peter Dunne set an ambitious schedule to implement the transition to the unified fire services. On 25 February 2016, Paul Swain was appointed as the new chair of the Board of the New Zealand Fire Service Commission, effective 1 April, and a new board followed on 17 March. The three new members included Dr Nicola Crauford, chair of the Wellington Rural Fire Authority, and Te Arohanui Cook, a former PRFO, NZFS volunteer, former FRFANZ Committee and FRSITO Board member. A fourth board member, Angela Hauk-Willis, would be the only member of the old board to continue beyond 1 April.

In his announcement of 29 April 2016, Dunne named the new service, and said $112 million of capital funding would be spent on moving to it over four years, beginning in 2016/17. The remaining $191 million of operating funding over four years from 2017/18 would be spent on new measures to address funding gaps in rural fire services, set up local committees to ensure community needs are well understood by the single fire organisation, and to better support for New Zealand’s 12,000 fire volunteers. The main source of funding would be the Fire Service Levy, and from July 2018 the levy will be broadened to include insurance on material damage, not just fire damage, to better reflect the range of services FENZ would provide. The fire levy on motor vehicle insurance would be extended to include third party insurance. The old cost recovery model of rural fires would be replaced by a regime of new penalties and offences. New legislation was to be introduced in mid-2016, and it was intended that FENZ would take over in mid-2017. Dunne claimed it was the biggest structural change to fire services in 70 years. At that stage, the structure was not defined, but it was made clear that statutory powers and authority would no longer be identified in legislation. Instead, the legislation will refer to the delegation of powers and functions to appropriately qualified personnel, appropriate with the modern definitions associated with Crown entities.

 Overseas Deployments


In January 1994, the first of what would become many overseas deployments saw DOC sending 15 monsoon buckets and 3 technical personnel to assist in New South Wales, Australia. The New Zealand Air Force provided transport to Australia, and 300 firefighters were placed on standby for possible deployment overseas. After this, in 2000, the NRFA concluded formal agreements with fire authorities in Australia , the USA and subsequently Canada to facilitate mutual aid. Because of CIMS training, it was comparatively easy for NZ managers to slot into these international incident management teams.  Agreement was also reached on the matching and cross qualifications for fire fighting roles and this was facilitated by the emerging standards for records of qualifications and experience for NZ rural firefighters.

USA, 11 Aug. – 20 Sep., 2000. 11 experienced NZ fire managers went as part of an ANZAC contingent of 79. 
NSW, Australia,  24 Dec. to 16 Jan. 2001. A total of 12 personnel went, including 10 IMT managers. 750,000 ha burnt, 4600 km fire perimeter, 600 structures destroyed.  
USA Aug. 2002.  10 IMT managers.
Vic., Australia, Jan. – Feb. 2003. 63 firefighters and IMT managers.
burnover of NZers, Victoria,  2009
USA,  Aug. – Sep. 2006. 29 firefighters and IMT managers.
Vic. , Australia , Dec 2006 – Jan 2007. A total of over 100 personnel over the two month period.  Burn injuries to 7 NZers, 4 serious, as a result of a burnover  at Mt Terrible, Mansfield. The video above records the burnover. 
USA, 2008. Eight rural fire managers and a  liaison officer were sent to assist  with major wildfires that were the result of dry lightning storms that struck Northern California during a very dry 2008 fire season.  Total fire suppression costs exceeded $US1B  in that 2008 fire season.
Vic., Australia, Feb-Mar 2009. A team of over 100 firefighters were sent in two contingents to
departure of firefighters to Victoria,  2009

 assist the DSE following the Black Saturday fires of 7 February.

British Columbia, Canada, Aug.-Sep. 2009, 7 IMT personnel.

The deployments have provided NZ personnel with very good experience and knowledge. NRFA Rural Fire Manager John Rasmussen contrasted US and NZ rural fire firefighting in an address to the 2001 FRFANZ Conference. The deployments also did much to raise the profile of the rural fire service with the NZ public and Government.



During the NZ Forest Service era to 1987, at least one major forest fire (500+ ha) occurred nationally about once each decade; the average annual plantation loss was in the order of 640 ha or 0.16%. However, since 1987, the average annual loss over a decade is lower with about 440 hectares or 0.03%). The average is about one major plantation fire (100+ ha) every 2-3 years. The area burnt by fires other than in forests is significant. 

The total number of vegetation fires over the last 30 years show a significant rise, but this is due to better reporting of fires, and the areas burnt, for all types of vegetation, have stabilised to about 5000 ha annually:

A significant fire prevention factor was the introduction of restrictions in the sales of fireworks over the Guy Fawkes period, including the banning of sky rockets. It had taken many years of complaints by fire officers before these effective measures were introduced (Wellington CFO, 1937).

Scion fire researchers have provided an analysis of wildfire records for the 16 year period 1991-2007 over which 93,860 ha was burnt. This is broken down to national and regional analyses for the period  for the same period. Forecasting a busy fire season is difficult. Although El Niño and La Nina6 has an important influence on New Zealand’s climate, it accounts for less than 25% of the year to year variance in seasonal rainfall and temperature at most New Zealand measurement sites. East coast droughts may be common during El Niños, but they can also happen in non-El Niño years (eg. the severe 1988-89 drought). Serious east coast droughts do not occur in every El Niño, and the districts where droughts occur can vary from one El Niño to another (although some are more consistently affected than others). However the probabilities of the climate variations discussed above happening in association with El Niño are sufficient to warrant management actions and planning to be taken when an El Niño episode is expected or in progress. The 2007/08 season was driest in some regions for 30 yrs; cost recoveries in that season exceeded $3M. Recent NRFA records of claims on the Rural Fire Fighting Fund are shown:

The economic costs of wildfires were analysed in a December 2009 BERL report commissioned by the NZFSC. This included a comparison with a similar Forest Service report of 1987, and showed that while total fire prevention costs had risen by 30%, fire fighting and fire prevention per-hectare costs in

 plantation forest  had reduced by a similar percentage, and  the average annual area burnt in wildfires had fallen to less than half the 1987 area. A summary can be viewed in NRFA Circular 2010-05, and the full report is available. The total annual economic costs of wildfire was estimated at about $100M, and when inflation adjusted, this was found to remained constant over the 26 year comparative period, in spite of plantation area increasing by 40%. Suppression costs are now only 8% of the total economic costs, and nearly 50% of these suppression costs are for hire of aerial firefighting resources. Unlike urban fire, vigorous legal action is undertaken by the NRFA and the RFA to recover suppression costs from those responsible for rural fires. 


Some modern videos of rural firefighter action are available.

Southern rural firefighters (1)
Southern rural firefighters (2)
Titahi Bay fire, 2010 (1)
Titahi Bay fire, 2010 (2)
Titahi Bay fire, 2010 (3)

 Significant fires over the period were:

Oxford, grass, Canterbury, 4 February 1987. 1,600 ha. 2 houses lost. 
Dunsandel, exotic plantation, Canterbury, 8-22 December 1988. 164 ha.
Kaimaumau, wetlands, Northland, 1988. 3,500 ha.
Pt Howard, RUI scrub, 22 February 1989. 2 houses lost, first by vegetation fire in Wellington Region since 1965.
Whangamarino wetlands, Waikato, 1989. 2,100 ha.
Tikokino, grass, Hawkes Bay, 31 January 1991. 130 ha. 
Mt Oxford, fire, November 1993. Pilot and crewman killed in helicopter crash.
Lake Ohia (Karikari Peninsula), Northland, DOC, $195K cost, deliberate
Mt Horrible, Canterbury, tussock, 580 ha.
Karori, Rural/Urban Interface gorse fires, February/March 1994.
Purakaunui, Otago, uncontrolled burn, exotic pine plantation, 6-7 November 1994. 210 ha.
Berwick, plantation forest, Otago, 26 February 1995. 255 ha.

Pt Howard fire, 1989

Mohaka, plantation forest, East Coast, 1996. 241 ha.
Loch Linnhe, Otago, uncontrolled burn, 1997. 860 ha.
Hillend/Cadrona, Otago, 1997. 1850 ha.
Harakeke plantation forest, Nelson, 23 October 1997. 532 ha.
Bucklands Crossing, plantation plus scrub, Otago,  24 March 1998. 200 ha plus 3 firefighters burnt.
Alexandra tussock and grass fires – in 2.5 hours, Otago, 28 February 1999. Total 8200 ha, two houses plus out buildings lost, first use of CIMS.
Wither Hills, grass, Marlborough 26 December 2000. 6,151 ha. Insurance issues
Ward, grass, Marlborough 26 December 2000. 545 ha.
No Mans, Canterbury, 13 March 2001. 280 ha.
Cora Lynn, Canterbury, 25 March 2001. 371 ha.
Miners Rd, grass and plantation forest, Canterbury, 2 February 2002. 200 ha.
Atawhai, Nelson, 3 February 2003. 60-100 ha. Video is a series of stills showing fire buildup from start.
Irvines plantation forest, Wairoa Gorge, Nelson, 3 December 2004. 200 ha, $1M suppression cost.
Chatham Is
Mohaka plantation forest, East Coast, 8 January 2005. 204 ha.
Awarua, uncontrolled burn, Southland, 27 October 2005. 1,348 ha. 
Closeburn, RUI fire, Queenstown, 5 November 2005.
Maringi exotic plantation, Wairarapa, 28 February 2006. 193 ha. 
Canvastown, plantation forest and scrub, Marlborough, 8 March 2006. 215 ha.
Blackburn. 330 ha.
Waipoua exotic plantation, Northland, 1 February 2007. 224 ha; cost $700,000.
Mt Cook Station, wilding pines and tussock, South Canterbury, January 2008. 750 ha
Clayton Station, tussock, South Canterbury, July 2008? 650 ha.
Wye Creek, Otago, tussock. 750 ha. 
Waiouru, tussock, 2008. 930 ha.
Mt Allan, Otago, exotic plantation and slash, 23-25 February 2010, 820 ha.. Costs >$2M.
Mt Allan, Otago, exotic plantation and slash, 24 December 2010, 200 ha. Cost ~$1M. Fire caused by spontaneous combustion in one high skid site from which rolling debris and high winds set multiple spot fires.
Papatotara, Southland, 15.1.11-4.2.11, 100 ha. Multiple spot fires caused property loss.
Matai Bay, Northland, 30.11.11, 130 ha and 3 homes. A helicopter crashed in the sea, killing the pilot and a DOC ranger who had been diverted from bucket work to rescue fleeing residents.

1. M. Dudfield, Senior Fire Control Officers Conference, Rotorua, 1991.
2. M. Dudfield, FRFANZ Conference, Nelson, 1995.
3. J.M. Valentine, ‘Fire Danger Rating in New Zealand: Review and Evaluation’, 1978
4. J.H. Rasmussen & L.G.Fogarty, ‘A case study of grassland fire behaviour and suppression: The Tikokino Fire of 31 January 1991′. FRI Bull. 197, 1997.
5. M. Darroch, pers. comm.
6. H.G. Pearce, J. Salinger & J. Renwick, Impact of Climate Variability on Fire Danger, NIWA Client Report AKL2007-061.