More than 11,000 volunteer firefighters serve small and rural communities from the Far North to Stewart Island. In Tākaka, Rebecca Hayter gets a sideline view of a “live house burn” training exercise, and learns how volunteers front up when the heat is on.
Incident controller Greg Flaws has called it into the crew radios. The fire has spread from room two, flicked along the sarking in the ceiling and taken hold in room four. It’s a new level of danger: flashover is about to occur. Flaws has judged it from the behaviour of the flames and the sudden rise in temperature.
“It means everything – carpets to wall lining, everything in that room – is going to catch on fire at the same time,” he says.
The firefighters emerge from the house with the strange weighty gait of astronauts. Their masks resemble gas masks used in times of war and their breathing sounds like Darth Vader.
Minutes later, the thermal imaging camera records temperatures of greater than 650°C at the flames.
This fire was deliberately lit at 10am at 724 Tākaka Valley Highway, but it’s not arson; in fact, it may help to save lives. The house’s owners offered it to the Tākaka Volunteer Fire Brigade as a training exercise, and chief fire officer Philip Woolf grabbed the opportunity.
“To get live house burns in today’s world as a training option, we treat it like gold, because with all the advocacy work we’re doing around fire awareness, we don’t go to many house fires any more.”
The golden opportunity was extended to 50 Fire and Emergency New Zealand regional firefighters from the Collingwood, Tākaka, Upper Tākaka and Wainui brigades in Golden Bay, plus recruits and trainers from Greymouth, Murchison, Nelson and Christchurch.
For many, it’s the first house fire they have attended, but the flames don’t make exceptions for newcomers. A senior firefighter walks past some young recruits carrying their helmets: “Put your lids on, boys.”
The derelict farmhouse sits back off the main road. It has tested free of asbestos and is empty, except for old sofas and beds donated by the firefighters’ families. In thick smoke, the furniture will be a trip hazard and produce toxic fumes as it burns. Toxic, and real.
The only crews permitted inside the burning building are those qualified to wear breathing apparatus (BA): the firefighter’s equivalent of a diver’s Padi certificate.
The trainers set fire to one room at a time. Each team takes its turn lugging the hoses into the house and observing as the fire takes hold. They practise using water pumped through the hose nozzles, known as branches, to control and extinguish the fire in cooperation with the safety crew working outside. Eventually, they’ll let the fire develop into a full-on inferno.
“Just one gulp of toxic smoke can drop you,” Woolf says. “The worst thing you can do is stand up and gulp hot air and toxic smoke. It can knock you out immediately. You’ve got to make your way out on your hands and knees. The kids are good at it because they get taught it at school, but the parents get hit with the fumes.”
Flaws’ fulltime role with Fire and Emergency is as a regional trainer, based at Woolston Training Centre near Christchurch. At the controlled house fire, he and other trainers are teaching recruits about fire development and the neutral plane – the layer that separates the hot smoke (over-pressure zone) and cool layer (under-pressure zone) of air.
“The bad area above that, the over-pressure zone, is where you don’t want to be. That’s where the toxic fumes are; it’s unburnt fuel. If it’s black, it’s extremely toxic. And if it gets really hot, that’s the stuff that catches on fire.”
Temperatures in the over-pressure zone may be at 400°C, while the under-pressure zone beneath the neutral zone has visibility, breathable air and is a relatively survivable 60°C. Temperatures inside a house fire can reach more than 1000°C, but fire crews are evacuated before temperatures above the neutral zone reach around 600°C.
When firefighters arrive at a house fire, the primary focus is to control it to make it safe for the fire crews; that means cooling the area above the flames with water to prevent combustion. If they attack from the inside, they direct water at the ceiling, crouching low in the under-pressure zone. If they attack from the outside, they direct water over the roof or through a window to the ceiling. “Too much water and they will create too much steam,” says Flaws. “Not enough and it’s not doing its job of cooling the area.” Then, the fire crews can extinguish the blaze by directing water at the flames.
Inside the house, there is huge emphasis on situational awareness. “We tell them to listen: don’t go all googly eyes at the fire,” says Flaws. “Sometimes you get transfixed on the fire while another fire is burning through a wall behind and cutting off your escape route. You need to keep looking in all directions. Look up – because up is where the danger is coming from.”
The emphasis on staying low extends to the 15 techniques for getting a victim out of a building: the classic fireman’s lift is seldom used in smoke. Usually two firefighters will drag someone out. “We keep everyone low,” says Woolf. “Stay away from that bloody smoke.”
The BA crews are in constant radio communication with their safety net: the outside crew. Flaws tells the outside crew to spray water above room one to stop flames catching the exterior of the building. “Not too much,” he tells them, “or that water will be raining down at boiling temperature on your colleagues inside.”
Crews work the unwieldy hoses in pairs. The front person, number one, aims the hose and adjusts its flow between a spray and a jet. Number two carries the hose weight to help move it and change its angle.
Flaws shows them how to go low and aim high to attack the roof or ceiling: it’s the classic firefighter pose, down on one knee like a marriage proposal to the flames. Sometimes they spray the ceiling in a pattern to create a sprinkler effect. “That might not put out the fire,” says Flaws, “but it would control it enough so that the BA crews could get in there and put it out.”
Another technique is “the curtain”, where the hose creates a waterfall down an outer wall to cool it – fires need heat, as well as air and fuel.
Throughout, the old hands are mentoring the keen new recruits. Trainer Alan Goldsworthy is aware the crews’ adrenalin is flowing.
“The impulse is to go in early,” he says, “but you’ve got to hold back and think about what you’ve been trained to do, because if you rock into a house, electric cables are hanging down, it’s dangerous. You have to check first.”
His most memorable blaze was the Fonterra dairy factory fire in Tākaka on 21 June 2005. He’d been home five minutes when the siren howled. He would be gone for 48 hours. “At five to five, we rock up. There’s smoke showing through the front of the building. We go to connect to our water supply and there’s no water. The fire’s growing and growing. They were doing maintenance on the plant and at the same time, they decommissioned the water supply.” He says big welders used in maintenance can represent a 3000°C heat source.
“The building was an add-on after add-on, multiple layers of dry wood structure. So we had to reverse all the hoses and then dam up the creek to get the water supply. Then a lab technician came out and said, ‘We’ve done a calculation and we believe if [the contents of] these silos should mix under extreme heat, the potential is to create a toxic gas, so we need to evacuate the town.” Each silo had 100,000 litres of sulphuric and nitric acid.
“I said: ‘You’re kidding. I’ve got no water. You’re now telling me you’ve got toxic gas and you want me to evacuate 700 people rapidly?’”
The wind was blowing easterly, straight into town. The only cop on duty mobilised the Department of Conservation and Search and Rescue. People were evacuated to Golden Bay High School. “Only to have the wind change, so they had to evacuate again [to Motupipi School],” Woolf says. He also instructed a crew to spray the silos with water to maintain their integrity and ensure they didn’t collapse.
It worked. No one died or was injured in the Fonterra fire. The next day a community expressed its gratitude with trays of home baking on the fire-station steps.
Every appliance (both professional and volunteer) attends a scene with at least four firefighters, preferably six. En route, the officer in charge (OIC) may receive more intel, then at the scene directs how to attack the fire, with the rescue of any people trapped inside the absolute priority. Usually the firefighters in the back of the appliance will take a hose into the building. The OIC remains outside to monitor their safety and the appliance driver becomes the pump operator on the appliance. As more firefighters arrive at the station, another appliance will join the first if needed.
At the scene of an emergency, crews follow the coordinated incident management system (CIMS) – the model used worldwide so crews from different brigades and even different countries can work together. At time of writing, New Zealand had 27 firefighters helping Australian counterparts fight the bush fires raging across New South Wales.
Locally, callouts for scrub fires can range from a camp fire without a permit to the Pigeon Valley fire that raged for 26 days near Nelson in February 2019 – New Zealand’s largest fire since 1955. The major difference between scrub and urban fires is size. On arrival, firefighters immediately consider factors such as weather conditions, humidity and temperature for clues about the fire’s behaviour. Darren Foxwell of Wainui Bay Voluntary Rural Fire Force says typically scrub fires start around 2.30-3pm, when it’s hottest. Dewpoint around dusk can provide an opportunity to hit the fire hard and bring it under control. Foxwell says the urban-rural interface is changing, with more lifestyle blocks and subdivisions to be protected. “In a purely vegetation environment, you can fight the fire as you need to,” he says. “The moment you get properties in the way, you have to split your resources.”
He says rural people are becoming more fire-smart in setting up defendable space around their property and having water available. Helicopters can defend a property well. “But drones and helicopters don’t mix. If you see a drone in the air, the helicopters come down; that’s a big message for people.”
Fire and Emergency attends many non-fire incidents, including motor accidents, where they may extricate victims from a vehicle, working alongside police, ambulance and possibly a rescue helicopter. They are focused on the golden hour: 60 minutes between receiving the emergency call and the patient reaching the operating table.
Under the CIMS model, the incident controller is in charge overall. For the controlled house burn at Tākaka, that was Greg Flaws, but firefighters train in all roles so the system works regardless of which volunteers attend the scene. As planning and intelligence officer at the Tākaka training fire, Woolf is overseeing ECO (Entry Control Operations), which looks after the breathing apparatus teams. ECO initially set up in a hay shed, but had to evacuate after a wind change blew toxic fumes from the fire in that direction. It was moved to a Fire and Emergency ute; its canopy panels were flipped up on either side and at rear to provide shelter for ECO’s operations. Forget fancy electronics – whiteboards rule here.
Woolf draws a floorplan of the house based on an initial reccy made by the first crew on the scene. He numbers each room and shows alternative escapes. As the BA crews report in by radio, he updates the status of each room: on fire, under control, vacated. Occasionally he asks one of the BA crews inside to report a reading from their thermal imaging camera to indicate the fire’s intensity.
“The number-one priority on arrival at a fire is to know whether any people are inside, and where they are likely to be,” says Woolf. “Someone might be able to tell us the last known location, say at the rear of the house. We would do a methodical search of that room, around the perimeter of the walls and a diagonal to diagonal search from corner to corner.”
He draws a lonely stick figure near room five to demonstrate.
The BA crews enter the fire in teams, stay together and exit together. They check each other’s air pressure. “In scuba diving, if a diver loses his regulator or mask, he can’t breathe because water rushes in,” says Goldsworthy. “In there, if we get a knock and lose our seal around our mask, and we can’t breathe, then we should be getting out and making sure we’re not breathing toxic air.”
The ECO whiteboards list every BA team, its members and the amount of air in each member’s cylinder before they entered the building, and the calculated time when they have to exit. Conservatively, one full air cylinder lasts around 36 minutes.
BA crews must exit the fire with pressure in their cylinder of at least 50psi, the level at which their regulator begins to beep. They also wear a tag that squeals a non-stop alarm if they don’t move for a few seconds, in which case the relief team outside will come looking for them. Radio communication is constant.
In an urban environment, the fire appliances draw water from the mains fire hydrants, but rural firefighters need to find their own water source. New houses in rural areas are required to have at least 45,000 litres of water available in tanks for firefighting, or a source that provides at least 25 litres per second for 30 minutes. Ideally, houses will have sprinklers with at least 7000 litres available from tanks of 30,000 litres or more. If such a supply is not available, the logistic team may dam a creek with ladders and tarpaulins and use portable pumps to take water to the appliances. At the Tākaka training fire, they filled temporary, bright-orange dams, like huge paddling pools, from a farmer’s irrigation system and pumped water from those to the appliances.
Four appliances attended, from Upper Tākaka, Tākaka and Collingwood. One played the role of mother ship, accepting water in an artery system from the other appliances, and pumping water to the fire. If a pump fails, they can switch to another within seconds.
The wind changes again, this time sending smoke over the appliances and the main road. The pump operators don breathing gear and the logistics team puts up signs to slow the traffic.
After several hours, all recruits have observed and fought the fire. It’s hard, physical work in heavy clothing. Flaws calls them out for the last time. Soon, frighteningly soon, the house flames are pure Hollywood. Smoke pours upwards in thick streaks to a grey-brown mess in the sky. There is crackling and occasional whoophs. Windows are breaking with a tinny, high-pitched metallic sound against the deep, ongoing roar as the fire consumes oxygen.
One appliance remains on stand-by with a fire hose ready. Occasionally, the pump operator sluices the rear of the fire engine to cool it down.
I ask Goldsworthy what would happen if this drill was for real and someone was trapped inside, with family members begging for a rescue. “The OIC has to make a snap judgment,” he says. “We’ll risk our lives a lot to save saveable people. We will risk our lives a wee bit to save saveable property, but we won’t risk our lives for someone who is obviously lost. So this house at the moment, with flames coming out of every window, it’s not a survivable situation.”
In the bigger towns and cities, 1739 career firefighters and officers are trained primarily for structure fires (including interior work), motor vehicle accidents, medical responses and some vegetation fires. Serving small and rural communities, 11,260 volunteers train mostly for vegetation fires and fighting building fires from outside, without breathing apparatus. Golden Bay has 67 volunteers and nine appliances distributed across Tākaka, Upper Tākaka, Collingwood and Wainui.
In the past 20 years, the number of structure fires has fallen, largely due to improved standards of building materials, the widespread installation of fire and smoke alarms and sprinklers, and fire safety and risk reduction messages. However, there are more severe weather events, motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies to which volunteer brigades regularly respond.
Woolf remembers, aged 16, carrying out on a piece of plywood a five-year-old child who had died while taking shelter under a bed.
“In those days, you didn’t dare stick your hand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling good about this,’” he says. Now, Fire and Emergency addresses the mental challenges firefighters face.
There is commitment to diversity in the workplace: men and women train on an equal basis, although only 4% of career firefighters and 16% in the volunteer service are women. Volunteers can apply to join between the ages of 16 and 73. Often several members of a family will be in Fire and Emergency. They train once a week and need to be available to attend emergencies at short notice. It’s an opportunity for life experience, a high standard of training in a range of skills – from pump operating and medical response to management, logistics and decision-making. Some will join but leave within three to six months, says Woolf.
“The recruitment process tests their ability to be in a disciplined, rank-structured organisation. We have standards, particularly around dress, presentation of equipment, appliances being cleaned. It culls out the team members who don’t want to play in that space.”
Those who commit do a nine-day course at a national training centre in Rotorua or Christchurch; it includes breathing apparatus training, medical response, minor motor accidents and scene management. Others may apply to train as pump operators and appliance drivers.
Flaws joined as a volunteer in 1989 in Hokitika. Twelve years ago he was appointed to a fire safety role on the West Coast while still volunteering, before moving to Christchurch seven years ago as regional trainer based at the Woolston Training Centre.
“If they [new volunteers] can get over the first couple of years of trying to work out how their brigade works and answering their pager when it goes, and the commitment to their training, it bodes well no matter what they do in life,” he says. “I always say to young recruits: ‘Don’t wish for a fire or a car crash just so you can practise your skills – because one day, it might be somebody you know.’”
Why the SkyCity Convention Centre blaze tested firefighting’s best
In many ways, it was a perfect, pyric storm. The roof was 13m above the fifth floor which, in an incomplete work site, had no sprinklers installed and no water source available for firefighting. Water wasn’t hugely effective, anyway: the roof’s bitumen surface was highly flammable and waterproof – so while the fire could access the plywood and straw insulation beneath the bitumen, the water could not. The fire was surrounded by downtown buildings and occurred in a period of high winds.
The first fire truck crew arrived without waiting for the emergency call at 1.10pm; the crew had been close by, seen the smoke and drove straight to it. Everyone knew it was going to be a serious fire.
Initially, fire crews lugged up to 50kg of gear each – breathing apparatus and hoses – to the roof, but Auckland Region manager Ron Devlin says all crews were soon pulled off the roof and out of the building, due to concerns about the burning roof’s stability. Engineers confirmed it was not designed to take the weight of multiple fire crews.
Mostly, the fire was fought from appliances with aerial extensions to direct the water at the flames. The following evening, FENZ decided to sacrifice the roof and let the fire burn out. It was finally brought under control on Thursday 24 October, with no loss of life.
At the fire’s peak, there were up to 30 fire trucks and more than 130 firefighters at the scene, representing crews from around Auckland and Hamilton, and supported by volunteers manning a canteen. There were several executives on rotation at the Incident Control Point and a regional coordination centre set up at the Auckland regional headquarters.
FENZ remained in control of the site for 10 days and set up a recovery team to lead the handover of the building back to Fletcher Construction on Friday 1 November.
The fire is currently under investigation by a number of agencies, including police and insurers. The cause is yet to be determined.