Devastating Wither Hills fires still burn in memory

In spite of recent rain, the fire risk in Marlborough remains high. As a reminder of how quickly a small blaze can get out of hand, reporter Robin Raymond spoke to people affected by the Boxing Day fires of 2000.

For Blenheim firefighter Lewis Jones, his first sight of the Boxing Day fires was a shock and the start of what he remembers as a harrowing time.

"I had my gear on waiting in the truck for the rest of the crew and one of them said ‘Look at the Wither Hills'. I looked and holy mackerel, I couldn't believe my eyes. Driving up Maxwell Rd was unbelievable, the amount of smoke."

A senior station officer in Blenheim, Mr Jones was in the second fire engine called to Ashwood Dr in Witherlea to tackle the blaze.

As the firefighters began working to protect houses on the street, Mr Jones said he looked up and saw the fire catching a stand of pine trees higher up the hill. He immediately called for helicopter assistance, but they were half an hour away, fighting a fire near Ward which eventually destroyed six square kilometres of land.

"At that point I knew we were in trouble, with the wind that it had behind it going about 50kmh, that was it, it was all over."

That first afternoon he and chief fire officer Barry Bridges set up a mobile command unit in Mr Bridges' car, co-ordinating the firefighting effort until they were relieved after midday the next day. Because the fire was mostly on the hills where it was too dangerous for firefighters to reach, it had to be fought from the air, while crews had to wait for it to come low enough for them to put it out. A lot of work was also done raking and digging earth and dampening hot spots, or using earthmoving machines to build fire breaks - an effort made harder by the sheer size of the fires.

Although the main fires were put out after three days, it was five days later on the afternoon of December 31 that the last crews were stood down.

The fire had taught a lot of lessons and everyone was better equipped and prepared, said Mr Bridges. But looking at the hills last week, he said the fire was also a reminder of how easily things could go wrong.

"Fires don't need a lot of fuel to be dangerous, they can still race away. Fires can jump hundreds of metres at speeds you don't realise unless you see it. Once you have ignition you've only got to have wind behind it and it's all go."

Do you remember the Boxing Day fires?  Email us your memories / photos 

The Marlborough Express