The Rapid Relief Team got into the thick of it in the recent Nelson fires, which started on Tuesday 5 February 2019 and were declared a national emergency by the following morning.

Towards the end of a dry summer and having seen no rain for weeks, the blaze ripped through over 2300 hectares of forestry just south-west of Nelson. The fire spread rapidly and lasted for over three weeks, causing massive forestry loss, up to 3000 people evacuating their properties and several homes lost.

At its height, 150 firefighters and 22 helicopters were tackling the fire. Not only was it one of the largest New Zealand fires in decades, but it was also the largest aerial firefight in New Zealand history.

Emergency teams hold a night meeting to plan the next stage of firefighting

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes an RRT water bottle while reviewing the proceedings

Despite the fires presenting the first reactive Rapid Relief Team operation in the Nelson area, a team was pulled together and set up at the emergency command base to serve from Wednesday 6th February. Working strenuous shifts 24 hours a day, RRT served approximately 2300* meals and distributed nearly 1000* water bottles over nearly 4 days before handing over to the NZ Army early on Sunday 10th February. The operation saw approximately 1100* total hours worked by around 120 RRT volunteers*.
We spoke with the team leader, Gareth Deck, on how it ran operationally.

“Tuesday evening was spent trying to contact the people in charge of coordinating the firefighters to ensure they were aware of what RRT was capable of. Eventually, the message got through resulting in them calling us at 12:30 am on Wednesday morning asking for a hot breakfast to be served to approximately 60 firefighters by 6.30am.

We mobilised the team and arrived at the forward command centre in Redwood Valley at 5:45 am.

The RRT tent and trailer quickly became the ‘go-to’ place for around 250 personnel including firefighters, numerous police and civil defence staff, pilots and ground crew for 23 helicopters plus dozens of civil contractors who were using heavy equipment to fight the fires.”

Firefighters take a well-earned burger break in RRT deck chairs


For 94 hours, starting from 6:00 am Wednesday, RRT ran four shifts daily at the forward command centre. Over 60 volunteers tirelessly ensured hot food and drinks plus snacks were available continuously throughout each 24 hour period. An additional team of volunteers spent 3 days preparing lunch and tea meals for over 100 staff based at the Civil Defence Centre in Richmond.

RRT provided continual wholesome food for the exhausted emergency crews battling the fires

Local supermarkets and food wholesalers donated over $2,000 worth of food and supplies and were extremely supportive of the RRT efforts. The feedback from those served and the public, in general, was 100% positive; some spoke about how they appreciated the happy faces and smiles, others commented on the high quality of food and of course, the barista coffees were a real hit.

This event proved how there is a real need for rapid response in emergencies like these and the RRT team in Nelson certainly proved they could provide a solution that went over and above expectation in meeting that need.


Statistics recorded are relevant as of 18th February 2019

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