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Tasman fire review finds shortfalls in New Zealand's preparedness for large-scale blazes

A review of firefighting efforts during the Tasman fires last summer, which cost Fire and Emergency New Zealand $13 million, has found shortfalls in the number of skilled staff working in risk management.

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An independent report into the Nelson-Tasman wildfires in early 2019 has been released. Source: 1 NEWS

The fires, which began on February 5, started in Pigeon Valley near Nelson then went on to burn over 2300 hectares, including significant areas of pine plantation. 

About 3000 people and 700 animals were evacuated and Civil Defence declared a state of emergency on February 6 which remained until the 27th.

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1 NEWS reporter Lisa Davies was with the family. Source: 1 NEWS

Local, regional and national resources fought the Pigeon Valley fire, which at its peak saw 23 helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, 23 heavy machines and more than 150 firefighters deployed.

At the same time, other fires broke out at Rabbit Island, Atawhai, Moutere Hill and Dovedale Hill. The extra fires significantly added to the complexity fire managers already faced.

In an Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) independent operational review released today, it was recommended Fire and Emergency New Zealand should undertake a comprehensive review of the National Incident Management Teams (NIMT) and their processes, operating policies, training and membership - including an increased focus on predictive services capacity to support fire suppression and consequence management.

The review found there to be shortfalls of experienced NIMTs working around the Tasman fire, which was also heightened by the long duration of the incident. The review indicated that there is a lack of higher level IMT surge capacity and said Fire and Emergency New Zealand was also challenged by the fact that it had deployed NIMT members to Australia to assist with fire management there.

"The lack of depth across New Zealand for trained and experienced people to fill the roles on the NIMTs became more obvious over time as each new NIMT had to borrow people from other teams to fill roles and maintain full functionality," the review said.

"This had a cascading effect resulting in some situations where people from outside the trained and skilled pool of NIMT members were being asked to step up as vacancies opened and could not be filled. The possibility of multiple simultaneous incidents associated with a warming climate will make this situation worse if it is not addressed."

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There are fears the fire could be about to grow in size as Pigeon Valley residents are told to leave. Source: 1 NEWS

The review provided 12 recommendations in total, including a review of wildfire training and that Fire and Emergency New Zealand should develop and implement a nationally consistent framework for strategic and tactical fire planning, community education and risk reduction activity that engages all stakeholders, including the New Zealand public as a whole.

It also recommended Fire and Emergency New Zealand should establish and promote a set of risk reduction guidelines or requirements around permitted heat and spark activities that relate to the community as a whole, not just forestry, and to develop a national aviation management function.

Raewyn Bleakley, deputy chief executive of the Office of the Chief Executive, said she welcomed the independent review and fully accepted its findings.

"We are committed to using every opportunity to improve our fire management for the safety of the community and our firefighters."

Fire and Emergency New Zealand commissioned the independent review because of the extent of the Tasman fires and the magnitude of the response, Ms Bleakley said, adding that the review was constructive and timely for the new organisation.

"The establishment of Fire and Emergency NZ was the first critical step towards addressing the lessons from Port Hills. It brought together 40 separate organisations and 14,000 people, and since then we have been focused on how we can more effectively work with other organisations and agencies during wildfires and other emergency responses."

Fire and Emergency NZ national commander and deputy chief executive of service delivery Kerry Gregory said he was pleased the independent reviewers found Fire and Emergency New Zealand has taken lessons from the Port Hills fire.

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More resources are being deployed to manage the ongoing Tasman fire, says Civil Defence’s Dennis Bush-King. Source: 1 NEWS

"Since then we have streamlined our incident management systems, undertaken regular training exercises with partner agencies to ensure consistency, and learned to work together more effectively.

"New initiatives, such as our local advisory committees and customised local operational plans, will be an integral part of helping us build stronger and more resilient communities and plan for their future needs.

"The next step is to develop an action plan which will identify how we can incorporate the review findings into our work programmes. We expect to have that completed by the end of this year."