Widened fire authority 'end of journey'

JO MCKENZIE-MCLEAN
Last updated 05:00 28/06/2014

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A new rural fire authority will "lift the game" of fighting fires in New Zealand's largest rural fire district, the authority's chairman says.

Phil Melhopt, at the launch of the newly created Otago Rural Fire Authority in Clyde yesterday, said it was the end of a journey that began in 2009 when national rural fire officer Murray Dudfield first pitched the idea of amalgamating the six authorities of Central Otago District Council, Clutha District Council, Dunedin City Council, Queenstown Lakes District Council, Waitaki District Council and the Department of Conservation (Otago).

"It made a lot of sense to me but not everyone shared that same vision . . . it was about sharing that vision, selling the benefits of amalgamation and building trust."

He reminded the crowd gathered that Otago rural firefighters had fought both the largest fire recorded in New Zealand, involving more than 9000 hectares in Alexandra in 1999, and the most expensive, being the Mt Allen fire in Wenita's forestry block.

The authority brought together resources, skills, professionalism and capabilities to lift the game, he said.

The newly appointed principal rural fire officer for the Otago region, Dr Stephanie Rotarangi, said for the most part, the enlarged rural fire authority would not bring dramatic change.

"Our rural fire forces in the field will deliver the same fire response and services to landowners, from the same locations. Our mandate, to protect the country we value, remains the same, as does our proud heritage of rural firefighting in Otago."

The benefits of a centralisation would come through more consistent governance, administration and services to firefighters, and simpler access for landowners seeking permits and advice.

"Previously it could be confusing and time-consuming for landowners to get a fire permit. Some farmers had land that covered more than one authority, each with its own plan and processes. From next week, they will have one contact for rural fire, and over the next few months we will be working on one fire plan."

The new authority will have seven staff based around the region and managed from Dunedin. The local authorities and the Department of Conservation would continue funding at existing levels to fund the new authority and were providing support, she said.

NZ Fire Service Commission chairman Wyatt Creech said merging of rural fire authorities "must happen" throughout the country. The Government had hoped it would happen voluntarily, and so far 131 authorities had dropped to 55. "We don't need to divide our country into 131 different districts to make it work."

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