The Rolleston volunteer contingent, putting in 12-hour-day shifts fighting Nelson’s fires. From left: Sam Johnstone, Matt Hadler, Phil Glen, Mark Bamber, Alana Adams, Rex Macpherson

Rolleston firefighters answer call

by Mike Isle

The fires ravaging Pigeon Valley in Nelson seem to have finally met their match as a dedicated group of skilled firefighters wrestle to get control. Among them is a team of unpaid volunteers from Rolleston.

It is just more than a week since a spark, believed to be from farm machinery, ignited tinder-dry Pigeon Valley, 30 kilometres south of Nelson.

The resultant fires have taken one home, forced about 3,000 people to be evacuated across a handful of valleys and in the Waimea Plains settlement of Wakefield, and are the focus of thousands of hours of collective toil by 150 firefighters from the far north to the deep south — many of them volunteers.

Among the latter is a team of six from the Rolleston Volunteer Fire Brigade.

They include an electrician, an engineer, a mechanic and a prison guard.

Their boss, chief fire officer Nigel Lilley, said he is super proud of them.

“They answered the call of their fellow brothers and sisters in the time of need,” he said.

Lilley said the contingent was putting in 12 hours a day at the frontline of the firefighting, and while it was likely they would be stood down and return to Rolleston for a much-needed rest, it was also highly likely that Rolleston would send another team of volunteers if the situation in Nelson escalated.

Meanwhile, in Nelson, Fire and Emergency incident controller John Sutton has told media that the situation was improving.

Expected high winds of the day before hadn’t eventuated, firefighters had two really good days and, Sutton said, the 860 Wakefield households displaced by the forest fires.
Around 400 in valley areas face a longer wait.

“I’ve got the feeling that we’re starting to turn the corner,” he said, although he quickly added firefighters would likely still be putting out the blaze in March and the bone-dry Tasman District’s fire risk remained so high forestry harvesting, and the use of farm machinery are still banned.”

Whilst there has been nothing on the same scale in Selwyn, sporadic fires have broken out, and deputy rural fire officer Dale Wilhelm said permits from Fire and Emergency were required for all open fires other than barbecues.