Co-operation key to stop blazes being lit

A new approach to the wildfires that plague the Far North every summer is already paying off, with firefighting costs slashed from more than $3 million to less than $400,000 a year.

The new tack involves working with the community to prevent fires instead of just putting them out, and combining the competing groups responsible for rural fires into a single, independent authority.

In Northland urban and house fires are fought by the volunteer brigades of the NZ Fire Service, while scrub and forest fires used to be fought by council-run rural fire parties, the Department of Conservation or forestry companies, depending on where the fire broke out. That led to duplication and confusion.

The Far North is only the second district in New Zealand, after Southland, to merge those different fire forces into a new, independent body.

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The Northern Rural Fire Authority marked that independence by opening its own base at a former council depot on Kaikohe's Recreation Rd last Friday.

It will eventually include offices, storage areas, garages for fire vehicles, workshops and even a youth gym.

Chairman Ken Rintoul said the new authority was only the second in the country but had already set a record no one would ever beat by slashing fire suppression costs from $3.4 million in 2012-13 to less than $400,000 in 2013-14.

The new approach was inspired by Wales' success in cutting wildfires from 9000 a year to fewer than 2000 simply by connecting with young people. "It's very easy to sit around and bash youth, but we want to be part of the solution," Mr Rintoul said.

Principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said a storage shed at the Recreation Rd site would be converted to a gym where promising youth would be offered training in firefighting and other emergency services; while a new workshop would carry out the pump and vehicle maintenance currently done in the Bay of Plenty, creating jobs and training opportunities. Also part of the youth engagement plan were a waka-building project at Horeke and competitive firefighting games in Kaikohe.

Mr Taylor said it was a "shift from fighting fires to stopping fires happening".

Chris Jenkins, DoC services manager for the northern North Island, said having different agencies fighting rural fires led to duplication, inefficiency and poor co-ordination.

The new approach would bring savings and more emphasis on the causes of fires rather than just putting them out.

"It's hard to stop fires if you're all working separately. I lost one of my staff in a fire (William Macrae, who died at Karikari in 2011) and I never want to see that happen again."

DoC's firefighting equipment now belonged to the Northern Rural Fire Authority and would eventually be transferred from DoC's Kerikeri base to Kaikohe.