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Fire chief says goodbye

Last updated 13:01 17/04/2014
Neville Hills
Neville Hills, who recently finished as principal fire officer in Clutha.

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Never be scared to ask the experts for advice before lighting a fire was the message from Clutha's principal rural fire officer, who finished this month after nearly two years in the role.

Neville Hills resigned to take up a job with Forest Management  but said the service was in a good position, with up to date systems and upgraded equipment.

Hills' contract is expected to expire by July when six regional rural fire authorities run by district councils, including Clutha, will merge into one organisation called the Otago Enlarged Rural Fire District. 

Hills hoped the transition would be smooth but nothing changed easily, he said.

''Initially it's going to be a challenge ... but I think it will steady as she goes for the first 12 months.''

Rural Fire members dealt to blazes outside town borders and there were groups of about 20 people based in Papatowai and Waihola plus a Fulton Hogan team of 10 in Balclutha.

They were all on call 24 hours a day and ''like all emergency responders, very few were paid'', Hills said.

''A volunteer is a special person regardless of what they volunteer for.''

When Hills first started he conducted a questionnaire, asking people why they joined the rural fire service.

''The highest response was to help out my community ... it didn't say anything about fighting fires.''

A former forestry contractor, Hills had been a rural fire officer most of his working life.

''It goes hand in hand with forestry really.''

One fire that stood out as a lucky escape was a blaze near Clinton last year when sparks from a train landed on dry vegetation.

The conditions meant it was ''like putting bellows on it ... it just went boom'', he said.

However, the quick response from fire crews meant the farmer did not lose all his feed, Hills said.

''The ramifications [of a fire] are bigger than just one day.''

Deliberately lit fires were one of the hardest parts of the job, he said.

''It's a nightmare when it is hot and dry and you know someone out there is lighting fires.''

His key message was to get advice before lighting a fire, rural fire officers were there to check conditions, offer help and issue permits.

A new weather system  meant up to date conditions about wind and temperature could be checked on the Clutha District Council website.

''There's a lot of information there for people wanting to burn or even just enjoy the day with.''

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A restricted fire season remained in place throughout April and permit forms were available at


- The Southland Times


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