Facing fire: life on the frontlines of the Port Hills fire

Christchurch central station officer, Omar Yusaf, an earthquake hero who helped rescue people from the collapsed PGC ...
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch central station officer, Omar Yusaf, an earthquake hero who helped rescue people from the collapsed PGC Building in 2011, was one of the first firefighters on the scene at the Port Hills fire.

Omar Yusaf, nicknamed "The Big O" by his NZ Fire Service colleagues, started his nightshift at the Christchurch City Station at 6pm on Monday.  Just half an hour after his shift began he found himself staring at a hill of flames in Early Valley Rd as one of the first responders to the Port Hills fire.

"It was pretty hard work, and pretty intense work," says Yusaf, station officer at the NZ Fire Service.

Arriving shortly after "it all kicked off", Yusaf and his crew attempted to "calm the flanks of the fire".

The Gordon family's Early Valley Rd property was destroyed.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

The Gordon family's Early Valley Rd property was destroyed.

"There was a lot of long grass and scrub," says the veteran firefighter. "We were doing our best to calm it with the hose lines we were running but it was going up the hill so quickly we couldn't keep up with it. Our first priority was to make sure people were safe and to do what we could to protect properties."

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Melted metal pools beneath the burned out remains of a car. Christchurch fireman Omar Yusaf helped rescue the Gordon ...
GEORGE HEARD/FAIRFAX NZ

Melted metal pools beneath the burned out remains of a car. Christchurch fireman Omar Yusaf helped rescue the Gordon family’s pet dogs, Lucy and Elvis, from this spot on Monday night as flames rapidly advanced towards them.

As the firefighters climbed the hill, they battled both the intense heat of the flames and a lack of water.

"We were pumping water up the hill from Early Valley Rd and were extending hoselines around the flanks of the fire to try and cut it off. By that stage the head of the fire was out of our reach and the helicopters were trying to put water on it."

Fighting a wildfire is extremely dangerous because the fire can spread quickly and those fighting it are at the mercy of wind changes.

The Gordon family are camping out at a small flat while they plan their next move after a devastating fire ruined their home.
MADDISON NORTHCOTT

The Gordon family are camping out at a small flat while they plan their next move after a devastating fire ruined their home.

"A house fire or a larger residential fire, we can overwhelm it with the weight of men and machines," Yusaf explains. "We can keep calling on resources until we overwhelm the fire but up there the fire is getting bigger exponentially and moving so quickly it's very hard ... you almost need to try and anticipate where the fire might be going and try to cut it off."

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He says that, inevitably, this means that the firefighter finds themselves ahead of a fire that is moving rapidly towards them.

"You can put yourself in quite a dangerous position. Something that is moving as fast as that means you very quickly run out of resources, you don't have the equipment or water you'd like to have because it covers such a vast area. In saying that we have been dealing with these types of fires for years. However, this one developed into something absolutely massive."

Billy Gordon snapped one last shot of his Early Valley Rd property before it burnt to the ground.
BILLY GORDON

Billy Gordon snapped one last shot of his Early Valley Rd property before it burnt to the ground.

As they battled against the heat and flames, Yusaf and a small team noticed a dog inside one of the cars about to be engulfed in flames. Surrounded by smoke, another dog was running around beside the car.

The dogs, Lucy and Elvis, belonged to the Gordon family – John and Margaret Gordon, and their three children Billy, 20, Rosie, 18, and Jesse, 16.

The Gordon's home was destroyed by the fire.

Firefighters battle the massive blazes on Christchurch's Port Hills. Would you run towards this, like our firefighters do?
NATALIE EDWARDS

Firefighters battle the massive blazes on Christchurch's Port Hills. Would you run towards this, like our firefighters do?

"One dog was a little Foxy and the other a brindle or Staffy. We caught the dog, chucked it in the car and one of the crew drove it through the blanket of smoke down to the bottom of the hill. We were worried the dog might have a go at him in the car but it was good, I think the dog knew we were trying to help it. It was just seconds before fire got to the cars. I saw the pictures on Stuff of the burnt out cars and that's just where the dogs were."

Without breathing apparatus and no water, Yusaf got as close to the Gordon's house as he could.

"We didn't know if people were still in there," he says. "The fire was rapidly encroaching onto it. We hollered to see if anyone would holler back but, due to the intensity of the smoke and heat, we couldn't get to the house and just had to hope the people had gone. We were opening gates and trying to get stock – cattle and a group of horses – out of the way of the fire. I don't know how they fared."

Jacob Maikuku, left and Teone Murchie both of Allied Pickfords, were heading for a river swim after work when they saw ...
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Jacob Maikuku, left and Teone Murchie both of Allied Pickfords, were heading for a river swim after work when they saw the Port Hills fires. They were some of the first people on the scene. Maikuku drove firefighters back down the hill through thick smoke to safety.

Yusaf is no stranger to dangerous situations.

During the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, he rescued many people from the collapsed PGC Building and saw human suffering no-one should have to witness.

But if you tell him he's a hero he'll simply reply: "I was just doing my job."

The veteran Christchurch fireman describes the earthquakes as the worst experience he has had on the job.

"On a scale of that, nothing else comes close."

Does he ever get scared?

"This fire was an intense situation," Yusaf admits. "The heat and the wind and the fact that the fire is capable of moving so quickly, it just takes a decent gust of wind and you've got spot fires breaking out. It's easy to get cut off and isolated. As you get further up the hill getting water to where the fire is becomes a problem."

In a calm voice, he describes finding a house on Early Valley Rd on Monday evening. The fire was racing across a paddock towards the home.

"We had no water at all, nothing. Fortunately there were some contractors from McCarthy Contractors on Tai Tapu Rd, they were beating the fire out with sacks and we joined in and that was the best we could do. I guess we saved that house."

At one point, Yusaf and a couple of other firefighters found themselves in a dangerous position.

A group of civilians came to their aid, with one man driving the firefighters through the smoke and flames to safety.

"We were lucky that one of the guys was there with his ute," says Yusaf. "He drove me and the crew up the hill and when I decided it was no longer a safe place to be, he drove us back down again. We were driving through smoke – we could hardly see in front of the bonnet, we had the air conditioning off so we weren't sucking any smoke into the cab."

The contractors had been about to knock off work when they saw the fire and raced to help.

"They all charged up there and pitched in, they were just fantastic those guys."

Jacob Maikuku and Teone Murchie of Allied Pickfords had been on their way home after work, heading to a river in Lincoln, when they found themselves travelling behind a fire engine.

"We found ourselves right at the bottom of the fire," says Maikuku. "We saw some locals, older people, trying to run hoses up the hill so knew we had to stop and help out."

Maikuku describes the experience as "definitely scary".

"The wind would turn and the flames would come back up at you... but we were happy to help. We ran hoses up the hill and helped wet the grass. Teone broke a shovel in half he was trying so hard to stamp out the flames. We just followed Omar who was the commander of where we were on the side of the hill."

Maikuku used his own vehicle to haul vital equipment up the difficult, steep terrain to the fire crew.

"I also loaded up one of the neighbours quad bikes with gear and took that up too," he says. "At the end of it, we all came back down, through the thick smoke, in my vehicle. I could hardly see a thing. We ran back down a few times and got them water and snacks. I wasn't scared so much... I just wanted to try and help as much as I could."

Maikuku and Murchie assisted firefighters for more than four hours.

"We were one of the first ones there on Monday night, we stayed until the Lincoln volunteers left," Maikuku says.

"I take my hat off to the firemen, they were amazing. I was buggered and they were still running up and down the hill. They were working tirelessly in good spirits. It was awesome to see. When we left it was getting dark and the fire looked like it was getting more under control."

Yusaf describes the pair as "amazing" men.

"We were fortunate there was a lot of contractors up there working like Trojans, they were amazing, beating the fire with shovels and really close to being burnt themselves."

On Monday night, Yusaf and his colleagues from central station fought the fire until it became too dark to continue.

"The fire was taken over at that stage by the rural firefighters," he says. "I guess it's in a rural area so they have legislative jurisdiction over the fire. At that point they said there wasn't going to be any more firefighting taking place after dark so we were stood down."

Is that a normal occurrence?

"I haven't struck it before really," says Yusaf, a veteran fireman of 29 years.

"We were stood down and returned to city station. That was the end of my involvement with the fire. It was frustrating..."

 - Stuff

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