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Fighting fires, battling barriers

Wairarapa’s recently appointed Deputy Principal Rural Fire Officer Renee Potae. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

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Wairarapa’s recently appointed Deputy Principal Rural Fire Officer Renee Potae is one of few women to hold such a high level operational role, but there’s nothing limiting about life with Fire and Emergency New Zealand she says.

Originally from Turangi, Potae didn’t always know she wanted to be a firefighter.

“When I was at school, I was really academic but I had also grown up doing a lot of sport and adventures with my dad in the bush.

“I went to university to study pharmacy but ended up doing a lot of skiing instead.”

After a few years in the ski industry, both here and in Canada, she returned home to take part in a research project focused on New Zealand’s national icon, the kiwi.

“I was a biodiversity ranger for 10 years, mostly focused on kiwi.

“Firefighting was also part of being a ranger back then.”

It was the perfect combination of her interest in science and love of practical activities such as riding motorbikes through the bush.

Firefighting is the same, she said.

“There are lots of practical skills but the more theory you learn, the more effective you are as a firefighter.

“Having grown up being quite adventurous and practical with an interest in how things worked, I had a bit of confidence to begin with. But I also studied a lot to build my confidence.”

Including her time with the Department of Conservation, she has spent 12 years in the firefighting service and said she’d seen a lot of changes in this time.

She said there had definitely been an increase in the number of women in the industry, though professional numbers were still quite low.

“It varies a lot depending on where you are.”

For Potae it comes down to increased visibility.

“We need more women in the service definitely.

“There’s nothing limiting about being a woman in fire.”

Another change had been the unification of emergency services.

“It’s not just fires. We also respond to a lot of motor vehicle crashes and medical events.

“Whether urban or rural fire brigades, we’re here to respond to emergencies of all types.

“And as communities grow, we need more people.”

This included volunteer firefighters, as well as operational and support staff.

New to Wairarapa, Potae has spent the past few weeks getting to know the “vast and beautiful” region while out on duty, covering coastal Ngawi to north of Dannevirke along the Tararua Range.

“One of our challenges increasingly is the warming climate creating warmer temperatures, drier environments, less humidity, and more wind.

“That increases the risk and intensity of fire.”

Potae had just returned from fighting bushfires in Tasmania when she was called on to help with the Nelson fires early last year.

“We are really trying to get out there to educate people and make sure our teams are resourced to help respond to fires.

“Increasingly we work with organisations like Scion and Niwa [National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research] to learn more about changing weather patterns which helps us prepare for the fire season.”

Just a few weeks out from Wairarapa’s fire season and after a week of high winds, she encouraged anyone thinking about lighting a fire to use the checkitsalright.nz site first.

  • More information about keeping safe when lighting fires or opportunities with Fire and Emergency New Zealand can be found online at fireandemergency.nz.

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