A rural wildfire is an unplanned fire, it includes grass fires, native and exotic forest fires and scrub fires be it natural or other in origin. During periods of drought, the risk of rural wildfires increases. Risks are the loss or damage to property and the possible loss of life, or serious injury to fire-fighters or people caught in the way of the fire.

Wildfires may be small or very extensive and tend to occur at the same time as a weather pattern moves from west to east. As Hawke’s Bay has a hot, Mediterranean-style climate, the region experiences days of extreme fire danger every summer, as the region has the second highest annual average summer temperature in New Zealand, with a summer average of 24°C.

The variability in rainfall in the spring to autumn seasons gives rise to mixed rural fire seasons between periods of lush growth and moisture deficits that can lead to drought conditions. A dry spell in extreme cases can last for several months. During periods of general, strong, west to north-west flow over the North Island, the winds across lowlands can be warm, dry fÖhn winds and in extreme cases temperatures may be 27-40ºC with a relative humidity of 8-30 percent.

Fires can begin many ways, such as lightning strikes, spontaneous combustion of chemicals or damp harvested crops, carbon soot emissions from vehicle exhausts, chimneys or incinerators, stone strike from mowers or machinery, and the direct ignition of fire caused by the actions or activities of people or animals. As a popular holiday and tourist destination, the population increases dramatically during summer with tourists visiting the countryside and using nature trails, walkways, river and beach areas, and camping sites, etc.

There are also electrical supply lines which carry the risk of arcing of power lines. Another potential cause of fire is the petroleum products which are distributed from outside the region via our roads.

The rural fire authorities are responsible for controlling all fires in their districts, outside of the major urban areas. Their powers are provided for in the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977. Therefore the lead agency for responding to a rural wildfire is the rural fire authority for the district in which the fire occurs. In Hawke’s Bay there are six rural fire authorities - Wairoa, Hastings, & Central Hawke’s Bay District Councils, Napier City Council, Bay Forests Rural Fire Authority, and the Department of Conservation.

There have been numerous large rural fires in Hawke’s Bay in the past.

One example was a bush fire in 1896 caused by strong winds that saw a fire spread across several farms in the Hampden-Onga Onga Road area in Central Hawke’s Bay. Local residents at the time described the sight at night as “indescribably grand, hills and flats one glowing mass of fire as far as the eye could see, a veritable fiery furnace”. It was only after the most determined fight with the flames that Mr Rathbone's shed and house were saved. On another property not 3 acres of grass were left standing, all of the totara timber was burnt, and the fencing ruined.

Every year the Rural Fire Authorities in Hawke’s Bay are required to fight large rural fires, two examples in 2005 were:

  • In January, 204 hectares of young and maturing pine plantation was burnt at Mohaka Forest costing over $650,000 to extinguish and destroying over a million dollars worth of standing trees. The fire’s point of origin was a chainsaw tree felling operation within the forest. Higher air temperatures, low relative humidity, strong winds and dry fine fuels all contributed to the loss. This was the third such rural fire in the Mohaka Forest in 20 years.
  • In October, the private owner of a Hawke’s Bay forest that was set alight after a burn-off found himself with a $60,000 bill. At the height of the fire, in a pine plantation near Puketapu, three helicopters with monsoon buckets attacked the fire from the air as about 60 people toiled to bring the fire under control.

ruralfireHelicopters are used to fight the Te Mata Peak Grass Fire 2005 (Photo Tim Whittaker Photography)


  • If you discover a fire you must ring 111 and ask for ‘fire’. You need to be ready to supply the exact location, with rapid number if available, and the nature of the fire.
  • Before you light a fire, check with your local council if a fire permit is required. Seek advice on any safety issues to do with any fire you may want to light in the open air, eg burn offs, tree cullings etc.
  • If you wish to join the Rural Fire Forces as a volunteer, contact the NZ Fire Service for details of the Rural Fire Forces in Hawke’s Bay.

For fire safety tips visit the Rural Fire Authority website

If you live in a rural area

  • Fire breaks -Mowing and grazing of grass along boundaries and near buildings, roads, railways, public areas and forests is essential to limit potential fire spread.
  • Irrigating areas around buildings, removal of dead vegetation, cleaning of roofs and gutters, trimming and thinning of trees, planting of low flammability species, and reducing build-up of rubbish are all ways that you can help lessen the likelihood of fire on your property.
  • Fire truck vehicle access - Urban and rural fire trucks are three metres high by three metres wide and weigh 14 tonnes. Can these vehicles fit through your gate and get down your driveway? Are bridges and culverts on your property able to carry the weight? What about quick access to building locations and water points? Access is the responsibility of the landowner.
  • Water supplies If the Rural Fire crew has to come to your property to fight a fire, a minimum of 45,000 litres of water is needed. This water may be in property tanks or in ponds, dams, or swimming pools. If you have a pressurised well, fit a coupling that fire fighters can use to connect directly into as this will save time. 
  • Water points should be clearly signposted and should have good vehicle access, including a turning area for a water tanker.
  • Property identification Ensure that your rural rapid number is clearly displayed at the gate or on your letterbox to ensure easy visual identification for emergency services in an emergency.
  • When reporting a fire, describe the best access to the fire to the operator and have someone out on the road to direct responding fire trucks, or use a parked vehicle with hazard lights operating as a marker.