In the aftermath of the Awarua Wetlands Fire, Southland Express journalist
Toni McDonald is taken behind the scenes to see the inner workings of Fire and
Emergency New Zealand’s operations.
AS day breaks, a fleet of helicopters hover like irritating mosquitoes, taunting the raging wall of flame which has thrived unchecked for almost 12 hours across the Awarua Wetland reserve.
But water-laden buckets hang ready to put an end to its rampage. In turn, each helicopter strategically dumps its load on the beast and moves to refill from a neighbouring creek. As one moves away, another takes its place to keep up a relentless dousing.
Slowly the flames are tamed into submission. The well-choreographed Sunday morning dance is patiently watched by ground crews who have come from around Otago and Southland to put the violent wall of fire to its own death.
It is easy to miss the watchful chess master flying high above the scene, directing the delicate balance that demands safety first and where the water is to be strategically dumped. This helicopter quietly hosts the air attack supervisor who commands the aerial operation. His job is to see the bigger picture.
He knows this beast from past skirmishes overseas — the beast has no conscience and will consume everything in its path.
The Awarua Manuka is very dry. It provides easy fodder for the fire to scoot along the top, hungrily feasting on the parched scrub. But it’s not enough. It wants more. So it finds its way into the equally dry peat beds at the base. It likes this place, so it goes deep underground where it can quietly sustain its cruel appetite until the wind can cheer it on again.
Meanwhile, trestle tables are laden with food and humming generators help urns to bubble. The cherry picker, extended high into the air, hosts a radio antenna and solves the communications problems caused by the flat terrain. The new temporary weather station feeds crucial data to the planning and intelligence manager.
But none of it happened by osmosis.
In the heart of the Incident Centre, in an unused Tiwai Point office, people are sitting at trestle tables.
But the level of luxury they have been enjoying at the Tiwai site is not their usual experience. Normally they make do with whatever they can get.
Sometimes a simple cardboard box becomes a workstation. They have people relying on them to perform a critical role, so they know how to adapt.
Sitting behind one of the make-shift desks is a woman armed with a computer, a phone and a generous-sized Suppliers Contact Book. The logistics manager puts all the strategic pieces in place to provide firefighters, helicopters and everything the crews will need on the job including on-site toilets, hand wash stations, meals, a hot shower and a decent bed for a good night’s sleep.
A large whiteboard displays the internationally recognised Co-ordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) with the names of who will be performing key roles for the next 12 hours.
The incident controller’s (IC) name is at the top of the board. But really, it should be on the bottom — the entire operation and the crew’s safety sits securely on his shoulders. He is responsible for everything — operational plans, to signing pay sheets. He is also responsible for the fire and what happens.
But he knows he’s not alone and can rely on his team for the accurate information they will feed him. The IC believes he has the easiest job because he has key people around him making good decisions.
The first two key pieces of the puzzle for the IC is to connect with the operations manager and the planning and intelligence manager.
The operations manager supplies critical briefs about the fire, while his planning and information manager will tell him about resources immediately available, critical weather information and predicting the fire’s behaviour in the hours ahead.
IC Julian Tohiariki says without them, he is in a lot of trouble, because he needs to be free to make decisions and not get caught up in the planning. He needs to trust his teams to give him the accurate information.
Assessing the scene’s initial status was the most stressful part of the operation as important decisions were being made under intense pressure.
Mr Tohiariki’s counterpart, Mark Mawhinney, says it was important the edges of the fire were first to get under control because a wind shift could mean the entire wetlands would be lost.
As darkness claims the first day, the beast is left free to roam and consume at will — but only for now. There will be no mercy shown after sunrise. An army of experienced firefighters from around Otago and Southland are on their way to join the battle.
Church volunteers armed with tents and barbecues set up at the forward command post to
start feeding the army that is quietly amassing among the growing makeshift camp.
Smells of grilled meat and fried onions taunt the tastebuds of the famished but grateful firefighters and tired bodies are refuelled for the next round.
Helicopters, armed with thermal imaging cameras, have tracked down hot spots among the
charred bush, where the fire has retreated underground.
Each morning, ground crews meet for a nourishing Koha Kai breakfast which has been
delivered before dawn. Detailed briefings about the day’s objectives are given before they are ferried into the hotspot sites.
Crew location boards keep track of the teams, as does a further on-site personnel system to ensure every crew member returns to base at the end of their shift or in the event of a sudden flare.
Each shift’s management team will plan 12 to 24 hours ahead for the crew which starts at the end of their shift. The teams are there to serve the front-line crew. Every detail is carefully planned with two goals in mind: to keep their crew safe and to get the fire controlled and extinguished.
Although staff have been seconded from across the province or island, it is not obvious this is a newly formed team. CIMS is a well-oiled machine. The clear and decisive team communication is something corporations dream of.
Daily debriefs and radios maintain the communication for the constantly changing
information, clinically weeding out brewing glitches before they cause problems or threaten lives.
The system is highly structured but also highly adaptable. Unique problems require flexibility to problem solve, like the cherry picker antenna.
The CIMS is a user-friendly international planning model which allows individuals or teams to be clipped into any emergency or disaster scene and work effectively. Like an adaptable multi-computer USB drive — completely interchangeable no matter the country or the disaster.
Four days later, fresh legs and fresh minds clip in alongside their counterparts while every delicate thread of the operation is handed over to seamlessly tag-team the fight.
Nature has hampered efforts during several wind-hassled days. But the crew eventually gets the favour they were looking for; the drought breaks — dousing man and the beast with the desperately needed moisture to completely stop it in its tracks.
Slowly, crews start to pack up their kits and head back to a life with less soot and ash. A humble few are left to methodically kill skulking hot spots.
While these unseen champions are the last at the scene, they also share the joy of being the first to see the tiny spots of green meekly budding amid the scorched reserve, as it quietly sets itself on the path of healing.