A volunteer firefighter has been commended for her heroic efforts in saving the life of a man who plunged to the bottom of a 100-metre cliff.

Sarah Lilburn was called out to a rescue down the Rangitikei River in the early hours of January 26 last year as a Kiwiburn festival-goer lay injured on the papa ledge.

Lilburn and Hunterville station manager for the St John first response team Richard Swainson were the first on the scene and could only get to the man by crossing the rapids and letting the current take them down river.

"He was not in good shape and was going down pretty fast," Lilburn said. "We wrote his details into the papa but with no supplies on us I offered to swim back to get what we needed."

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Being a confident swimmer, Lilburn swam against the current to get a radio and back to help Swainson until the rescue helicopter arrived to winch the man to safety.

"I just got on and did it, I don't really think about it all, it could have gone wrong but thankfully it didn't."


In her five and a half years of service as a volunteer firefighter in Hunterville she says she has never had a rescue quite like it and thankfully hasn't had one like it since.

The rescue was the second in around 36 hours as another festival-goer in his 20s had been trying to get back into the festival after hours and fell 70m from the same cliff.

Although Lilburn was not involved in the first rescue she knows how much time and effort goes into them.

Kiwiburn 2017, just north of Huntville. Photo / Bevan Conley
Kiwiburn 2017, just north of Huntville. Photo / Bevan Conley

The Kiwiburn arts festival held at the Vinegar Hill campsite was cancelled in 2019 due to resource consent issues but for the next 10 years it has received a consent to go ahead and Lilburn is urging those attending to be careful.

"The trouble is the gates are shut at midnight and not opened until 8am so for those that try and get back in or sneak down, they don't know their surroundings and in the dark that's extremely dangerous," she says.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand has praised her efforts by presenting Lilburn with a letter of commendation at the annual honours night for the Hunterville Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Kiwiburn. Photo / Bevan Conley
Kiwiburn. Photo / Bevan Conley

Recently the keen horse rider and farmer has been training with three others from the Volunteer Fire Brigade to compete in the annual LBC Firefighter Challenge up the Auckland Sky tower this weekend.

Sarah Lilburn with Fire and Emergency New Zealand board member Malcolm Inglis, left, and Hunterville station manager for St John's first response team Richard Swainson. Photo / Supplied
Sarah Lilburn with Fire and Emergency New Zealand board member Malcolm Inglis, left, and Hunterville station manager for St John's first response team Richard Swainson. Photo / Supplied