Nelson fires – the iwi response

Nelson fires – the iwi response

The battle against the Tasman wildfires set a new standard in iwi response to disasters.

Inspector Dexter Traill, Tasman District Māori Responsiveness manager, was one of three Iwi Liaison Officers mandated by the eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu – the top of the South Island – to manage their resources and represent their interests in the response.

For the first time, there was a permanent ILO desk in the Emergency Operations Centre in Richmond, where Dexter and fellow ILOs Shane Graham, of Te Puni Kokiri (TPK), and Barney Thomas, of the Department of Conservation (DoC), were based.

In another first, a cultural element – or pou – was written into the Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) structure, bringing the ILO role formally into the governance of the operation.

“There’s no manual for how to do what we’ve been doing here,” says Dexter. “This is a little step towards where we need to be in building our partnership with iwi within the CIMS model.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done. But before, there was no cultural pou, now there is. Before, there was no iwi liaison in the governance group, now there is.”

The ILOs coordinated the iwi response at three marae that prepared to support evacuees. They enlisted a team to deploy when a cultural response was required, for example performing karakia, pōwhiri, mihi and other cultural practices as the need arose.

When tensions arose over water, with iwi concern over damage to the mauri of the rivers, the ILOs were able to broker usage and understanding and alleviate angst and concerns.

Dexter, Shane and Barney ensured tikanga Māori ran through the response. This ranged from starting each working day in the EOC with a karakia, to arranging mihi whakatau for visitors including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

They released a series of social media videos, some entirely in te reo Māori, in which they gave out messages and interviewed key people. These reached an estimated 150,000 people.

Two teams of Māori Wardens worked day and night shifts, helping at cordons and with evacuations; at the A&P Showgrounds where evacuated pets were cared for; and staffing the EOC front desk.

iwi EOC

The EOC building in Richmond.

The response built on the development of the Māori Emergency Action Network (MEAN), a network crossing local authorities, government agencies, NGOs and iwi which arose to address gaps in the response to the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.

After Kaikoura, Shane was working from the Marlborough EOC. “On day three we started getting information about whānau who hadn’t been contacted or spoken to directly.

“We decided to go and look for ourselves. We got in a 4WD and went down with Rural Support people. In one hour we met 26 whānau and none had seen any local emergency response people.

“We brought iwi in for a hui. They had no idea about the EOC, about what was happening or their role in what was happening.”

In the recovery phase, MEAN partners met quarterly, pushed for Māori representation on influential bodies and worked toward getting representation in EOCs in the event of an emergency.

MEAN extended its reach from Marlborough into the neighbouring Tasman region, setting the scene for the joined-up fire response.

“I’m proud of MEAN and how we did things and I’m proud of the support we continue to give,” says Shane.

The Māori response was the subject of a hui in Richmond in the final days of the state of emergency, attended by leaders of the eight iwi and Minister for Māori Affairs Nanaia Mahuta, among others.

The ILOs spoke and answered questions. Iwi representatives praised their work, and the ILOs thanked the leadership for their decisive response, when under normal circumstances getting eight iwi around the table could be a lengthy process.

ILO aroha

The ILOs with admin support
Aroha Gilling.

Minister Mahuta said the latest emergency – like Christchurch, Kaikoura and the Rena before it – demonstrated iwi desire to play a meaningful part.

While CIMS was well established, the contribution of Māori to disaster response was an evolving space - and she would discuss it with Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi.

“I would feel very confident in drawing attention to the new model in conversation with Minister Faafoi and my cabinet colleagues,” she said.

Tasman District Commander Superintendent Mike Johnson says the development reflected long-running work to build trust and confidence.

“You can’t be as effective if you’re trying to build relationships once an emergency is already happening,” he says. “The building blocks need to be in place before a major event.

“This level of trust and confidence among our partners – particularly iwi – was born out of the journey Tasman has been on for a period of years, including upskilling staff and increasing awareness in partnering with iwi.

“This is reflected in the results we’re starting to see in trust and confidence, particularly among Māori, in our district.”