The Pigeon Valley fire in Nelson has left a trail of smouldering ashes in its wake.
At the peak, the fires affected an estimated 2340ha with a fire perimeter of 35.4km. The fire forced about 3500 people to evacuate, leaving 1000 homes, livestock and properties at the mercy of the blazing trident.
The Department of Conservation were part of the first responders to the fires and continue to have a presence in Pigeon Valley.
DOC firefighters from Nelson, Tasman, Whangarei, New Plymouth, Te Kuiti, Invercargill, West Coast and the rest of New Zealand geared up and stationed themselves on the ground to fight the fires. Up to 20 staff are deployed each day to the fires, with rosters to ensure teams are on the ground day and night.
I spoke to some of the rangers, managers, regional director and international experts (who just happened to be in the right place at the right time) to get their experience responding to the fire.
Here are their stories…
Northern South Island – Operations Director
The fire response was a great combined effort from across the board, and all staff worked tirelessly doing the hard yards. The team did our share of the heavy lifting. It’s great to see how well teams from across the organisation have come together.
Some teams on the ground were made up of rangers from all over who have been thrown together, some meeting for the first-time working side by side on the fire line.
I’m also proud of how our team integrated with other responding organisations. Working with Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) and other agencies has been a worthwhile experience for a number of our local staff . Communication from Scott Bowie from our National Fire Support team was excellent with consistent updates and media support.
When you have teams of people wanting to help and communications is lacking, there can be a lot of sitting on your hands. I would like to thank the team at FENZ for doing such a great job to allow our teams to get to the front line and get on with the work.
We had firefighters from the USA, Central Oregon Rappellers (AKA the ‘Hot Shots’) who come to New Zealand each year to train and assist with fire work in their off season.
These men and women are very experienced and have the tools and skills to battle fires of this size. This team are a tight nit crew that can be deployed at any minute and be ready to fight fires. They are used to working in tough conditions and repelling from helicopters in mountainous terrain.
I’m grateful for the other fire crews from within DOC, there was an immediate response when the call was put out. “You seem to think that when an issue in your patch, even an issue this size, that you have onus of the issue on your shoulders. You forget you have a whole network of people to support you.
There were lots of offers of support from across the organisation, and it was great to see. I am grateful we received an amazing response from across DOC, and I thank those people and teams who continue to support the region in battling the fire.
Kieran Parish – Assigned to Alpha Station
Ranger Supervisor Recreation/Historic – Golden Bay
I came back from Annual Leave and we were given the call about the fires and needed to send out a crew. We had a day to sort gear and get over to the command centre. We were lucky we had a bit of time to sort out gear and equipment. The fire was divided into areas for teams to attack. I was deployed to Alpha Division, in Pigeon Valley for three days.
Our team was all DOC crew, from Renwick, Nelson Lakes, Takaka – and we were assigned crew leaders to direct us. Teams were quite small – 4 to 5 per team and generally you were put in a team from your own district.
We had 12-hour days, briefing in the mornings were at 7am – and you worked until the evening briefing at 7pm. My first day was spent on running wajax fire pump at the main skid site for the hose crew.
Days were long – and you pace yourself, so you didn’t burn out. When we were in the thick of it working with the hand tools, you get hot and tired, so need to take regular breaks. Most of the work was dry firefighting techniques which involved walking the burnt line putting out hot spots, digging out burning stumps and roots.
In some cases, if we found a hotspot that hand tools could not extinguish, we called in heli support to extinguish with the monsoon drop. We don’t get fires every year, so it was great to be involved and get some invaluable experience, it’s been a big eye-opener for me and the team.
Matt Page – Motueka – Assigned to Division A Alpha
Ranger Supervisor Biodiversity
I got the call I was going to be deployed to assist with the fires, I arrived a day later than the other guys attending. We met at the DOC Motueka yard at 6am each day and headed over to the Incident Control Point ICP) and met up with the rest of the crew and was assigned to crew leader role. The ICP is where we received a daily briefing at 7am before meeting with Sector Supervisors for taskings.
On day one and two of our crews arriving we were putting in containment lines with hand tools and hoses putting out hotspots up to 30 metres from the fire edge. We worked cohesively with DOC teams from Nelson Lakes, South Marlborough and Takaka for most of the three days under the watchful eye of our sector supervisor Shane Cross.
Part way through day two the Motueka crew got redeployed to deal with a ‘slop over’ which is where the fire has jumped containment lines. We used hand tools and hoses to dig up and extinguish hot spots and after a few hours had things dampened down. The following day (three) we rechecked the slop over area and dealt with a few remaining hot spots and felled a few hazardous trees before being redeployed to assist with a back-burn.
Our crew were tasked with watching the non-burnt areas for any spot over. Once the back-burn was complete we set up a dam and ran a fire pump with two lines wetting down the edge where the back-burn was lit to minimise the risk of any spot over fires during the night. We were fed and watered pretty well and had good quality food throughout. Lunches had notes from the community thanking us for our work which was greatly appreciated. This is a big fire and days are long so it’s best to pace yourself and chip away at it. We were reminded that there is no hurry to get to the fire as its already burning, we just needed to be safe about what we are doing.
It was great to be kept busy most of the time, comparatively there was very little hurry up and wait. I know the Motueka Crew enjoyed themselves and gained valuable experience on the fire line. I wonder when the rain will arrive?!
Operations Manager – Nelson Lakes
Operating under a incident management structure and seeing how we work with other agencies has been valuable. You could call it a bit of a circus, and you can only plan ahead so much, but will always be slightly chaotic, and you need to be able to expect it and deal with a changing landscape.
Its been a fantastic experience for the DOC crews and for some it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You don’t want events like this, but situations like this will prepare crews for future fires or larger scale emergencies if they arise in their own region or internationally.
Rangers from Invercargill to the Bay of Islands; some with their usual work mates while others are hybrid crews from around New Zealand, have been in the fire ground working 12 hour plus shifts – 7am to 7pm or 7pm to 7am. We have generally labelled crews by where their crew leader is normally based. On average there have been 3-4 crews of 4-5 rangers on the ground at one time.
The DOC fire teams have been really good at sizing up and accepting the situation, and getting stuck into it. Crews can come through and if fresh, get set up with a vehicle, hand tools and a thorough briefing and be on the fire line within a couple of hours. Everyone who has come to help out understands things aren’t easy and have been great to work with.
As a region we are pleased and grateful people have come through from other parts of the country and taken on the work, the favour will probably be returned in one way or another.
Ranger Biodiversity – Taranaki
I was called a week ago to assist with the fires. I just arrived today with rangers from Te Kuiti, Bay of Islands, Auckland and Whangarei. I’m here until Friday to help turn over the ground, knocking out some of the hot spots.
Because it’s so dry here and there’s no rain forecast for a while, there is a real risk of a break out, so crews will stay until the fires, embers and hot spots are well and truly under control. Hot spots can be smouldering underground and a lot of tree roots and old logs can be smouldering away and are easy enough to flare up again.
Aroha Gilling – Treaty Settlement Ranger
Ranger – Nelson
I’m based at the Control Command Centre in Richmond, alongside all the other agencies pulled into the Crisis Incident Management team. I am the Pou Āwhina to the Iwi Liaison team and support the coordination and communication with local iwi to ensure iwi interests are upheld.
Being flung into a team like this I had to quickly learn a new set of skills I had no previous experience of. I had to learn fast who was who, key people I would need to work with, and how our team sat within the structure. The current structure of CIMS traditionally doesn’t have iwi liaison officers as a role, however they add a lot of value to response teams like this.
A team such as this meant there was an iwi presence at the media stand-ups, ILO doing daily live feeds on Facebook to keep whānau up to date on the iwi’s response to the fire. These daily Facebook posts have had guests, such as the Mayor and sign language interpreter who appears on the daily Tasman Council updates and become somewhat of a local celebrity. These live posts are highly popular with the online community.
There is real value in a Māori response team in a time like this and it provides an opportunity to start a meaningful and authentic relationship between iwi and local government, supported by Iwi Liaison Officers and other stakeholders to discover what a true partnership could be.
In the thick of this all, this has been a big learning curve for all involved, including me.
Dylan Kane – Central Oregon Rappellers
Hotshots Firefighter the USA
I work in the crew of 24 people from the USA. What do we do? In short, we abseil out of helicopters to fight fires.
I came over to New Zealand as part of a program that’s been going for the last 10-11 years. The program brings firefighters to NZ for a 5-week course, doing track work, recreational work, historic work – whatever DOC needs. We also do some work with hand tools, chain saws etc. Because we have experience and skills compatible with what DOC wants, we come to train on our off seasons.
I’ve been here for a month now, and we heard about the fire while doing a track project. When we got the call about the fires, we were told we would likely be requested to help. We had a team of 12, got our bits and pieces together and left for the fires.
We arrived in Brightwater, where staff were briefed. We are familiar with this process and it’s the same as we use at home. In the US we use an Incident Command System, which is a flexible system to change the control of demand with changing situations. This is an effective way of tasking assignments to clearly state who is in charge.
When we arrived, we were given an area. The burnout reduced the fire perimeter, and then we were tasked with holding the perimeter, holding the fire line and getting rid of hotspots.
This Nelson fire was very similar to ones we see back home. In the US this would be a medium size fire – we have 1000 ha fires each year. The forest types between NZ and US are different. In USA the environment has adapted to fire, so fires are much more frequent.
Fire season occurs throughout the year and we are usually following fires because they are so common. In New Zealand there aren’t so many fires caused from lightning like at home.
We learned a lot from locals, about fuels and natural fuels, environment and weather condition changes. We were able to share strategies and tactics with contractors, DOC and other agencies which was hugely valuable.
On behalf of us we are excited to be able to come to New Zealand and help, we are honoured and appreciate the opportunity to assist and work with our colleagues across from the ocean.
Well done to you all. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You guys were seriously amazing.