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 nameformedlocationRFA
Ahuroa VRFF1996Ahuroa, AucklandRodney District Council
Athol VRFF1971Athol, SouthlandSouthern RFA
Arthur’s Pass VRFF1987Arthur’s Pass, Cant.Selwyn District Council
Kawau Island VRFF1997Kawau Island, AucklandRodney District Council
Lees Valley VRFF??Waimakariri DC
Onewhero VRFF1984Onewhero, TuakauAuckland RFA
Pines Beach VRFF??Waimakariri DC
Pirongia VRFF1992?Waimakariri DC
Taupo VRFF2007TaupoTaupo RFA
Shelly Beach VRFF1975Shelly Beach, AucklandRodney District Council
Waikawa VRFF1988Waikawa, SouthlandSouthern RFA
Waikuku Beach VRFF??Waimakariri DC
Wainuiomata Bushfire Force1970Wainuiomata, WellingtonHutt City Council
Waitakere VRFF1984Waitakere Township, Ak.Auckland RFA
Wellington City RFF1993Tawa, WellingtonWellington 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

19.12.1895Whakaroa, East Coastburnoff1??wind change
15.1.1908Cashmere Hills, Cant.wildfire1 firefighter?tussockworking alone

1 firefighter

?pine forestfire run
1978/80Wairoaburn off1 farmer???
26.11.1973Little Malaya, Oxford, Cant.wildfire2 air crew??

Bell 47G helicopter crash

11.2. 1980Willow Flat, Hawkes Bayburn off2 firefighters1cut kanakaunstable weather
1980?Mt Thomas, Cant.burn off1 firefighter?tussock/cut manukaworking alone
10.10.1990Waihopai, Marl.burn off1 farmer?matagouriwind change
19.3.2000MorrinsvilleMVA1 firefighter1 firefighter?tanker rolled on way to veg. fire
26.12.2008Hicks Bay, East CoastMVA1 firefighter1 firefighter?fire truck rolled on way to MVA
8.4.2009Willowby, S. Cant.escaped burn1 firefighter?solitary pine treecrushed by fallen snag
10.11.2009Hadfield Beach, Aucklandburn off1 landowner???
30.11.2011Matai Bay, Karikari, Northlandwildfirepilot and DOC ranger??chopper went down in sea
3.9.14Cromwellburnoff1 farmer???
15.10.14Mt Alexander, Hurunuiburnoff1 farmer?scrub, not out of controlsmoke inhalation?


‘near miss’ rural fire incidents resulting in burn injuries

Aug 1950Taieri Va., Otago1



matagouri, tussockwind change
Aug 1958Central Otago1steepdry&NW windtussockwind change
Sep 1966Roseneath, Well.1steeplight windmatagouri, tussockgully+wind change
1967Lower Hutt2*steep?gorsefire run
1967/68Patangaumu1???fire run
Feb 1967Tarawera, Rot.6????
1970Pataruru, Waik.1steep??entrapment
1971Caitlins, Southland1gully??fire run
1970’sTe Kuiti1????
1970’sCoromandel1steepcalmgorse/fernflare up
Sep 1972Totara Peaks, Nel.1steepcalmmatagouri, tussockwind increase
1972/73Akatawera, Well.1*steepcalm?fire underground
18.1.1974Pouakani, Waikato2wide basincalm?fire whirl
1980Pureora, Waikato1?high windfernflare up
Jan 1983Wellington3*steephigh windgorsefire run
2.4 1985Eastbourne, Well.2steepmod. windburnt gorseblow up
9.4 1987Akatawera, Well.2*steep?gorseblow up
1987/88Mt Oliver, Marl.1steep?gorsefire run
Apr 1988Akatawera, Well.1steepmod. windgorsefire run
Jan 1989Wellington1*steep?grassfire run
22.2.1989Pt Howard, Well.2*steephigh windgorsefire run
24.3.1998Bucklands, Otago3steepmod. windburnt scrubblow up

* denotes urban firefighters

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