CANTERBURY RURAL FIRES OF 1987/88 AND 1988/89

 

Michael Burke

NZ Fire Service

Christchurch

[Paper presented at the ‘Prevent Rural Fires Convention’, Ministry of Forestry, Wellington, May 1989]

 

My name is Michael Burke. I am the Area Commander, officer responsible for firefighting in the urban area of Canterbury. My responsibilities extend from Kaikoura in the north to Hinds in the South, and to the Great Divide. Today I am going to speak on a large rural fire which occurred in Oxford on the afternoon of 4 February 1987. This, for me, was a most significant fire.

 

1. BURNT HILL, OXFORD, 4 February 1987

This had been a period of little rainfall and the north westerly winds had, intermittently, been gusting (to my estimation) at about 80‑100 km an hour. It was getting close to the time of the equinox, always a period of winds. There had been a burn of two days previously at Burnt Hill, which had got out of control and flashed across some paddocks. Although the cause of the fire on 4 February was undetermined, it may well have been caused by a burning post whipped up again by the very high winds. Initial fire calls had put volunteer fire brigades into place, immediately protecting farmhouses and properties. It was not long, however, before the call came to the attention of the commanders on duty in Christchurch and immediately two were despatched, one to take incident command and the other to set up control command at the Oxford Fire Station.

 

The size of the fire was signalled back by information messages from the incident commander indicating the enormous risk to the Eyrewell Forest should a change of wind occur. It was obvious to me that considerable resources would be required, so we set up a regional command post at the Christchurch headquarters station, notifying the Fire Service Commission of the size of the fire. As Area Commander, I proceeded out to the command headquarters at Oxford and established a close liaison with the Rangiora District Civil Defence Coordinator and the local authority. The Principal Rural Fire Officer, who was also the Deputy Chief Fire Officer at Oxford, was out on the fire appliances fighting the fire, subject to the authority of the Fire Service command system. The local authority was up and running and assisting in every way, but operating subject also to the authority of the command post.

 

Great black clouds of smoke began to cover the northern suburbs of Christchurch as the fire spread, rapidly driven by the northwest wind. It was the observation of Assistant Commander O'Neill, the (Incident) Field Commander, that helicopter flying conditions were nearly impossible, the machine being buffeted around almost uncontrollably. He was able to observe farmyard properties catching alight, allowing only the barest minimum of time for residents to evacuate themselves and a limited number of their possessions as the fire drove on, threatening always the flank of the Eyrewell Forest. Back on terra firma he was unable to identify official forestry firefighters in the fire, or their appliances. However, I made contact by.telephone with the officer in charge, Eyrewell Forest Headquarters, and made tacit arrangements that his resources would be directed to the forest and its immediate boundaries, and the Fire Service would look after "the rest". However "the rest" was burning, of course (this was several hours later).

 

Although we could not stop the fire, we moved firefighting appliances around the periphery of the blaze and received constant updating of the situation and threat from a mobile 4 wheel drive observer. These messages were passed to Civil Defence to enable the controller to be able to assess, with as much information as possible, the possible need for a declaration of emergency. Again, our greatest fear was a wind change to the south. The situation at the Oxford Fire Station was bordering on chaotic. Convoys of water tankers, volunteers, Army, Air Force, St John and Red Cross personnel, and many other organisations, had assembled, each one wanting to find a place where he could be of maximum assistance. The Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Army were organising food and refreshments.

 

Meanwhile, the dusty, driving norwesterly conditions were showering dust upon all who ventured outside, causing communications to be affected, and intermittent. A very difficult situation to sum up, and to reassure those in authority that we had it under control. At the fireground, meanwhile, large numbers of volunteers were turning up in their cars, clogging the roads, adding to the risk, compounding the confusion. They had to be ordered away if lives were not to be lost. Uniformed Police were necessary for this role.

 

Fortunately, at this time in February, rain had been very heavy in the alps and the Waimakariri was in flood. Filled right to the edge of its banks, it formed a most effective fire break. The north westerly wind remained constant and drove the fire against the bend in the river, enabling firefighting resources to quell the flank exposed between the river and the Eyrewell Forest. The worst of the emergency was over. We were able to take a breather and to get some relief to those who had taken the major brunt of firefighting. As night came the winds lessened and now we were able to coordinate an effective attack on the fire with the resources of the Army and Air Force personnel using, in the main, shovels and knapsack tanks.

 

It was all too obvious to me, as Area Commander, that I could not logistically continue with the input of volunteer firefighters at the same rate that had been required initially. They were exhausted. It was also obvious that the fire was not in the Fire Service fire district and that every urgency should be given to handing the fire over to the Principal Rural Fire Officer at Oxford, Brian Barrett. It was indeed unfortunate that Brian Barrett happened to be the Deputy Chief Fire Officer of Oxford and had been involved in the hands on part of firefighting up until this stage. However, with the Oxford County Clerk, Brian Barrett formally took over command of the fire about 11.00 am on the following day. Though now retired, Brian is as strong as an ox and almost relished the role. The Fire Service then proceeded to withdraw its resources and command post, with the exception of those brigades immediately involved, Oxford and Cust, and this enabled the Principal Fire Officer to plan his resource requirements as they dampened down this large fire over the next few days.

 

Some very real observations were made at this fire that will be dealt with later on in this convention. It was all so obvious that those homes that were clear of trees and growth enabled the fast‑moving fire to sweep past, whereas those set in trees and shrubs were destroyed, as were outbuildings and sheds, etc. A large number of sheep were burnt, literally trapped in their paddocks with nowhere to go. Heaped up against the fences, they burned to death.

 

Thus a satisfactory operating philosophy was born in the wake of this fire. In Christchurch we decided that we would be up front in command at the early stages at all fires of this scale. We would, with every means possible, endeavour to take the emergency out of the fire. Our area control room, being the receiver of the 111 emergency call, would carry the responsibility of communications until the emergency was over and the Fire Service handed the fire over to the appropriate authority.

 

This has been the endeavour, and indeed the practice, during the very busy season this last summer, and what a summer it has been. I give a brief account of those large scrub and plantation fires that dominated our summer firefighting.

 

2. WOODEND PLANTATION 17 October, 1988

The first of these was to occur at 1551 hours on 17 October. The fire had begun at the Waikuku Beach settlement north of Christchurch. Driven by a north westerly wind, it had entered the plantation and crowned out of control of the initial appliances which had responded from Woodend, Rangiora and Kaiapoi volunteer fire brigades. The situation was daunting. Command control was set up at the Woodend community centre, providing also a haven for evacuated residents of the Woodend community who, upon my arrival, were waiting anxiously for an update of the fire and the safety of their homes. Pressured somewhat by Trevor Inch, the Rangiora District Council Civil Defence Coordinator, I addressed the relatively large gathering of residents, sounding far more confident than I felt, indicating that the fire was coming under control.

 

From there I proceeded to the Woodend Beach, where there was a total of some 15 appliances from the Fire Service, the Department of Conservation, the local authority and the 4 Wheel Drive Club, plus a gathering of about six water tankers. Here also were set up catering and refreshment units from the Red Cross and Salvation Army to feed and care for an estimated 150 personnel. The Fire Service appliances remained on the roadway being fed by a large swimming pool and a water race. They formed a relatively weak ribbon of hoses along a natural fire break of the road.

 

Effective coordination was made between the Department of Conservation fire crews and Timberlands, who proceeded into the plantation in an attempt to establish fire breaks and to attempt some firefighting in the actual plantation area. However, they were to return to the incident command post as conditions had now become quite impossible due to the darkness, the fire and the wind conditions. So I don't mind telling you it was with some trepidation we waited for the fire to advance upon us.

 

Once again rate was on our side. At the very time the fire seemed to be burning at its fastest and most furious, the wind swung round to the east, dissipating the fire front and enabling successful entry into the camping ground by 4 wheel drive vehicles operated by the Army, Timberlands and the Conservation Department to make successful ground attacks. This was to see the fire finally brought under control by the concentrated efforts of all involved. Firefighting continued throughout the night directed by the Fire Service, until daylight hours permitted the Principal Rural Fire Officer of the Rangiora District to assume his responsibilities and use his resources. The Fire Service withdrew.

 

This fire destroyed 60‑70 hectares of standing pine. It was, however, small compared with the fire on Thursday 8 December which occurred at Burnham ‑ the Burgess Plantation fire.

 

3. BURGESS PLANTATION FIRE, DUNSANDEL, 8 December 1988

Within 10 minutes of the call, which was received by 111 at 1549 hours, two appliances were working on a fire involving the perimeter trees in a block of the Burgess Plantation. Over the next three hours the fire spread into the Robinson and Wattle Plantations, having a total plantation area of 1200 hectares.

 

The Fire Service command in this case acted in an advisory role. The Selwyn Plantation Board poured in resources which included helicopters, Fire Service appliances and manpower, Conservation appliances and their manpower, and support volunteer organisations. The fire was under the command of the Ellesmere Principal Rural Fire Officer, Ray Anderson, with Bill Studholme, Chief Executive of the Selwyn Plantation Board, as his deputy.

 

The Fire Service presence here lasted for two weeks, during which personnel clocked up some 4265 man hours. It is now history that 164 hectares of standing trees were destroyed (12 000 cubic metres of timber) at a present day market cost of $440,000. The fire area was constantly the subject of aerial heat seeking, and checks months later revealed that a deep‑seated fire was still present.

 

4. BOTTLE LAKE PLANTATION, 21 December 1988

The next major fire was to take place at the Bottle Lake Plantation, which is situated on the northern side of New Brighton, administered by the Christchurch City Council. At 1831 hours on 21 December appliances from the Christchurch brigade responded to numerous calls advising smoke showing in the plantation. For the next seven hours, 11 heavy service appliances, three 4x4 units and nine water tankers, plus the hoselayer and 4 helicopters, concentrated on containing the centrally located fire which at times crowned but generally burned at ground level over 10 hectares of 25 year old pine trees. This plantation is grown mainly on the foreshore and the soft sand tracks made urban fire service attack very difficult. In this case the Principal Fire Of ficer, well assisted by his staff and equipment, was soon able to assume full control.

 

5. WORSLEYS SPUR, 28 December 1988

Just seven days later Christchurch firefighters were to face one of the most threatening fires of the whole summer season. This was to occur in the Cashmere Hills area and began on Worsley Spur at 1415 hours on 28 December. A column of heavy black smoke rising to over 500 metres, and a heavy crown fire, indicated the plantation situated on the hills above the Princess Margaret Hospital was well alight. The Worsley Spur Plantation covered a complete valley on the northern side of the Worsley Spur Road. Dotted among the pines near the top of the valley are approximately six houses, all valued in the vicinity of $250,000. That was cause enough to call in helicopters immediately at the early stage, and with the support of ground units, attacks were made to protect these expensive properties.

 

Units were still being set up when the fire front passed between the houses, jumped the road and proceeded south, burning over approximately a 2 km front in medium to heavy scrub. It was a miracle that no houses were lost, although credit must be given to the prompt action of fire crews, both air and ground, in controlling remaining fires after the front had progressed on, saving any serious fire development around the properties. Later in the evening the front reached the Hoon Hay Valley where appliances made a stand around several other properties.

 

During the 26 hours of firefighting, the Fire Service's attack consisted of 20 HSP's, two 4x4 units, 22 tankers, hoselayer, and command and control units. This was supported by 5 helicopters, the Department of Conservation high country firefighting teams, 100 Civil Defence workers, New Zealand Army soldiers, Air Force units, and many volunteers and support units, plus a large contingent from the Salvation Army and Red Cross to feed and refresh exhausted firefighters.

 

Worsley Spur is administered by the Paparoa County Council. The initial size and intensity of the fire precluded the Principal Fire Officer from taking any part in the initial attack, although he did respond and assist where possible. The fire was formally handed over to him on the morning of the following day. Later on this day we were blessed with heavy rain, which assisted to reduce the chance of further breakout. This enabled the entire Fire Service to withdraw and Paparoa to completely take over the dampening down.

 

6. VICTORIA PARK, 13 January 1989

We were not long into January when on the 13th, possibly a carelessly discarded cigarette thrown from a vehicle proceeding up Dyers Pass Road, caused a fire to race into the Victoria Park Plantation. This is an area for picnics and bush walks. it serves as a quiet recreation area for people in the Christchurch district. The vegetation generally is a mixture of mature pines and bluegums, with areas of scrub. Open picnic areas are dotted through the park.

 

Although the fire spread was not great, and wind conditions were light, the fire crowned immediately and precluded firefighters from entering the area among standing trees. The only water available was from a reservoir at the Sign of the Kiwi, a stock pond in the Eastern Valley, and a continual shuttle of tankers being fueled from the Christchurch City reticulation approximately 3 km from the fire. With four helicopters forming the air attack, and tankers racing backwards and forwards, it was a little bit of a logistical nightmare. Fortunately all roads had been closed and members of the public were able to be kept out.

 

It was essential to establish an early knock‑down as strong southerly winds were forecast. A "helicopter down" message transmitted at 1804 hours did not assist, but fortunately the machine was hovering above a stock pond when its rotor clipped the bank. It quietly settled into the pond. There were no injuries.

 

Our involvement at Victoria Park continued for 26 hours, in which time we used 12 HSP’s, four 4x4 units, 14 tankers and 5 helicopters. Support organisations included the New Zealand Army, Department of Conservation high country teams, Civil Defence teams, Salvation Army, Red Cross, Ministry of Transport, etc.

The account for helicopters along cost nearly $25,000. It was most fortunate that the New Zealand Air Force decided to waive its charges.

 

CONCLUSION

The busy activity has caused us to work together with local authority engineers and Principal Rural Fire Officers throughout the province. We now know one another’s capabilities and limitations. The season was a very costly one. The incurred costs, on my own estimates, were unable to be recouped. The magnitude of the fires caught the attention of the Government, which has set up a rural fire protection review team.

 

I have never known another year like it in Canterbury. Many have considered that the large fires gained size because of the lack of forest forefighters and equipment. While this may be so, I cannot remember having such a close working relationship with foresters as has been established with local authority people, the Ministry of Forestry, the Department of Conservation, and high country firefighting teams.

 

As we look ahead to next year I am comforted by the fact that we are better prepared, but so many of these large fires were, in the end, fortunately controlled by the elements. Should we have another dry season with severe winds I cannot imagine the type of resources which would be required to bring such fires under control. For instance, if the fire at Oxford had got into the Eyrewell Forest, something of the magnitude of the Australian or American resources would need to be considered. Such types of considerations are task forces, dedicated helicopters, and the establishment of super funds to finance such firefighting. Are we really likely to suffer these extreme conditions again? It would be foolish not to expect them and plan for them.

 

This, as you know, is only a very small part of the responsibility of the New Zealand Fire Service, whose prime direction has been, over more recent years, towards urban firefighting, with all its complexities. The urban firefighter is now a person wearing breathing apparatus, protective boots and leggings, an aluminised bunker coat, and with a heavy helmet, complete with heat screen, on his head. The Fire Service pumps are heavy vehicles, not ideally designed for off road use. The largest areas of new work have been involved with hazardous substances and non‑fire incidents. It is my view that we have no more resources able to be committed to rural firefighting without considerably reducing our urban fire cover expectations and standards.

 

I await with interest the outcome of the Rural Fire Protection Review as we regroup to face the threat of possibly another drought in Canterbury during 1990.