Fritz Buckendahl will never forget 5 February 2019, when New Zealand’s largest fire since 1955 erupted in tinder-dry Pigeon Valley to quickly become an all-consuming maelstrom that dominated national headlines for weeks.
Then again, his perspective is a unique one, not only does Fritz work as a Logistics Woodflow Coordinator at Nelson Forests Ltd., and hence understands the timber industry like the back of his hand, he’s also the Volunteer fire Station Chief in Wakefield, at the centre of February’s conflagration.
“My wife Sue and I were driving back from the Phil Collins’ concert in Christchurch,” remembers Fritz. “We hit Murchison and I began receiving pictures on my phone from my son Nick. I knew immediately it was a biggie. When we reached the top of Spooners Range I could see it all. Everything was against the fire fighters – low humidity, dry fuels; it was hot, and very windy.”
“Sue dropped me at the station and I immediately started fielding calls. I needed to gather information about the fire and check on the welfare of the brigade members and their families.”
“Wakefield’s two appliances were first on the scene, so they’d started the initial fire attack. Brightwater’s rural brigade was next to arrive with their two appliances. Our Principal Rural Fire officer (part of Fire and Emergency) was also very quick to respond to the call. After a quick hand-over briefing, Rural Fire Network, based in Richmond, had taken over the management of the fire event.”
“Fire units are designated ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, each specialised accordingly,” says Fritz. “We’re an urban brigade so our speciality is structure fires, motor vehicle accidents and Hazchem callouts. Rural units like Brightwater specialise in vegetation events. Of course we’re all trained to assist each other in any disaster scenario.”