Rural fire chief brings experience

PENNY WARDLE
Last updated 16:16 26/06/2012
Richard McNamara

Lifestyle choice: Richard McNamara is happy to have moved from Mt Cook to Marlborough. The Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority general manager plans to get involved with rugby, rowing and flying and to buy a boat to explore the Marlborough Sounds with his wife, Anne

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The Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority kicks into action on July 1, headed by experienced fire crew manager Richard McNamara.

Mr McNamara was chief ranger at Aoraki National Park for five years before being appointed general manager and principal rural fire officer of the rural fire authority, which combines Marlborough North, Marlborough South, Kaikoura and the Conservation Department rural fire forces.

During 14 years with the Conservation Department, Mr McNamara has overseen firefighting aircraft operations in New Zealand and overseas.

This included the Marlborough Boxing Day fire, which burned through 6000 hectares in the Wither Hills and beyond in 2000, the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, Australia, in 2009 and the Victorian Alpine Fires, which destroyed 1.3 million hectares in 2003.

Since moving to Blenheim early last month, Mr McNamara has been planning the nuts and bolts of how the enlarged rural fire district will work.

"There are very good systems here and good people. It's about pulling them together for the benefit of the district," he said.

Advantages would include more money to maintain and replace equipment and upskill rural fire teams.

Marlborough was among the most fire-prone districts in New Zealand, Mr McNamara said. As well as supporting rural fire crews, the authority would increase efforts to educate communities on reducing the risk of rural fires and increasing resilience, if fires did burn out of control.

In New Zealand, people caused 99 per cent of wildfires, he said.

Out-of-control burnoffs, rubbish fires and poorly maintained machinery, including trains, were among the causes.

In recent years, KiwiRail had improved maintenance of its trains to avoid the brake failure that had sparked many fires.

Mr McNamara acknowledged tension between landowners and fire authority managers working under the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977, which surfaced during the Boxing Day fire.

"Nothing on God's earth would have stopped that Wither Hills fire," he said.

"All we could do was manage the flanks."

Firefighters had considered back-burning to clear ground ahead of the fire but rejected the idea as likely to cause it to grow bigger faster, which would have risked lives.

Mr McNamara prefers careful use of a technique called burning out. Lighting a fire to clear the area between its flank and a barrier like a road was used successfully overseas and in South Canterbury, he said. Good communication was essential to make sure no-one was trapped in the area.

Mr McNamara will be based at the civil defence building in Wither Rd, in Blenheim. He will be working alongside Marlborough District Council emergency services manager Ross Hamilton.

Before joining DOC, Mr McNamara was a soil physicist specialising in soil compaction. He has played representative rugby for North Otago and coached up to senior grades, rowed for Oamaru for 15 years and coached to a premier level.

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- The Marlborough Express

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