Nelson fires: a mammoth response

Nelson fires: a mammoth response

The Nelson bush fires have required a mammoth response from Police staff from Tasman District and far beyond, says Acting District Commander Inspector Zane Hooper.

The fires have been described in some quarters as the worst New Zealand has seen, covering around 2400 hectares with a 33km perimeter.

A state of emergency was declared in the region on 6 February, the day after the fires started, and remains in place.

More than 3000 people had to evacuate their homes, and one house was destroyed.

fire map

A Civil Defence map of the affected area, published
Sunday - fire zone in pink, evacuated areas blue
and 'prepare to evacuate' yellow.

By the beginning of this week, 83 properties and 230 people were still evacuated, and 1277 properties – and 3558 occupiers – were in the ‘prepare to evacuate’ zone, on notice to evacuate again if required.

At its height, 22 helicopters were tackling the wildfire, making it the largest New Zealand aerial firefight on record. The situation remains volatile, with 180 hotspots remaining and wind adding to the risk.

In addition to the immediate emergency response on the ground, there has also been a huge logistic, planning, intelligence and administration effort to enable the response, says Zane.

“The work from Police on 5 February was immediate and invaluable in terms of assisting the fire service, evacuating homes and keeping the community safe,” he says.

As part of the operation – led by Civil Defence and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) - Police and Defence Force staff have assisted with evacuations, managed cordons, supported re-entry programmes and completed reassurance visits to hundreds of homes in evacuated areas.

As well as Tasman District staff - some of whom returned from leave to help, and often working extended shifts - the operation has been supported by 200 officers from seven other districts. A further deployment from Wellington is planned this week.

Staff have also been deployed from Police National Headquarters (PNHQ), including a dedicated planning and support team. A deployment from the Royal New Zealand Police College (RNZPC) included 37 members of Recruit Wing 323 who were attested early and spent five days in Tasman before their graduation.

“The Police response has been well received by the community in the affected areas,” says Zane. “The initial evacuations were handled in a professional and efficient manner.

“The follow-up support with the re-entry programme, which included visiting every home in the wider Wakefield area, has been well received with residents visited really appreciating that personal and direct support.”

The Major Operations Centre attached to the National Command and Coordination Centre (NCCC) was stood up on 10 February, initially 24/7, and is still in operation. It brings together Workforce Management, logistics, intel and other support.

fires sue

AC Sue Schwalger and Senior
Sergeant Rick Spooner in the
Major Operations Centre.

Assistant Commissioner Districts Lauano Sue Schwalger and Assistant Commissioner Response and Operations Tusha Penny coordinated support for Tasman at a national level.

"When events like this take hold and consume a large of part of district resource, there is a real need to come together as an organisation," says Lauano Sue.

"AC Penny and myself worked in tandem to ensure that the District was well supported to not only manage the event but ensure BAU continued.

"Standing up the Major Operations Centre ensured everyone was working together to ensure the response to the fires was a joined-up NZ Police response rather than leaving the district to ‘manage as best they can’.

"This left the Acting District Commander to manage the response rather than overly concern himself with the resources that he required on any one day. This clearly illustrates the approach, with the centre supporting and enabling the district to deliver the outcome required.”

FENZ has said the firefighting response will continue for weeks to come. Police will be there in support.

With thanks to Kelly Mitchell and Liz Evans, Police Public Relations.

Fire photo - FENZ; evacuation and airport photos: NZDF