Goudie fire comments timely

13 Jul 2007

Forest owners are concerned about a proposed radical change in the structure of fire services, which could see hillsides left to burn until it is clear who owns the land in question.

Kerry Ellem, chair of the NZ Forest Owners Association fire committee, says National's internal affairs spokeswoman, Sandra Goudie, has captured the concerns of many fire-fighters and land owners in fire-prone east coast regions.

In a statement earlier this week she said Rural Fire Committee chairs from all over New Zealand had strongly rejected a plan promoted by internal affairs minister Rick Barker for centralising all fire prevention and control in Wellington. They said the plan did not address funding issues and would see a drop in volunteers, expertise and equipment.

Mr Ellem says that since 1990 the area damaged by rural fires each year has fallen by 50%.

“The present set-up needs some fine-tuning, but overall it works extremely well. Countries with centralised fire management bureaucracies like that proposed by the minister see it as a model of efficiency,” he says.

“The key to its success is that communities take responsibility for their own fire prevention and control. As a result there is a rapid and efficient response, using local equipment, expertise and manpower.”

Another concern about the Barker Plan is that the Department of Conservation will no longer be able to access the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.

“This fund enables Rural Fire Authorities to respond to a fire, irrespective of the ownership of the land on which the wildfire occurs, knowing their costs will be reimbursed,” Mr Ellem says.

“Until the fund was established in 1990, DoC was sometimes unable to make timely payment for the costs of controlling the occasional large or catastrophic fire on their land. If there is uncertainty about DoC’s responsibility and willingness to reimburse costs, wildfires which occur near DoC boundaries may be left to burn until it is established who is accountable.”

Mr Ellem says the existing structure for rural fire management should be maintained, but with smaller rural fire districts being required to merge. This has already occurred in many districts, producing significant efficiency gains and administrative benefits.

“The system we have works well because it is accountable to those most affected. If we unwind it, it will be very difficult to rebuild if a future government decides the Barker Plan isn’t working.”