"A lot of people would think I'd be the last bugger to be up for something like this."

That might be Paul Wright's view, but today the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet made him a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

The seasoned firefighter retired this year aged 71. He started working in forestry in 1966 and admitted: "You can't go on forever".

In the last 11 years of his career, he moved to the fire risk management world.

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He was the principal rural fire officer of Pumicelands from 2007 to 2017 and chief executive from 2015 to 2017.

Then he led the amalgamation of the Central North Island rural fire districts under the new agency, Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

Paul Wright, rural fire officer in 2009. Photo / File
Paul Wright, rural fire officer in 2009. Photo / File

It was his biggest challenge bringing together rural fire brigades, Department of Conservation groups, and forestry companies "to try and get them all on to the same page".

In particular, forestry companies were "afraid of losing control of their estates".

But leading the change became Wright's biggest achievement.

"Rural fire services nationwide I think have generally been very underfunded. A lot of them have had to raise funds through community groups ... Now under Fire and Emergency New Zealand, all of the funding is paid for."

New Year Honour recipient Paul Wright. Photo / Andrew Warner
New Year Honour recipient Paul Wright. Photo / Andrew Warner

He said the camaraderie of the industry kept him working until his 70s and became "the biggest wrench" when he retired.

"All of a sudden you're at home and you don't have a team."

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Wright credits his former colleagues with keeping him "young".

"I have always prided myself on selecting very good people."

New Year Honour recipient Paul Wright. Photo / Andrew Warner
New Year Honour recipient Paul Wright. Photo / Andrew Warner

His former staff still visit him to pick his brains. The day before the Rotorua Daily Post arrived to interview Wright, he spent 90 minutes talking with one, "which is actually quite a compliment", Wright's wife, Tups, said.

Wright said Tups deserved as much of a "share" in the award as he did.

"We've been very much a team, all of my life ... without her encouragement probably I wouldn't have even bothered doing half the things that I have done."

When Wright worked in forestry, they spent four years without power in an isolated home near Te Araroa, and another two years without power in a Fijian village when Wright was principal of the Fiji Forestry Training Centre.

Paul Wright, new Rotary district governor in 2014. Photo / File
Paul Wright, new Rotary district governor in 2014. Photo / File

Wright has also been a Rotary member for 34 years, including a stint as a district governor, and been involved with organisations supporting people with disabilities.

He said it was "humbling" to know someone had nominated him, and "a real surprise" when his honour was confirmed this month.

"I don't think I'm any different to anyone else. You never do things to get this sort of award. But I'm certainly very pleased."