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 ...

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.

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."

* Firefighters sent home early from Christchurch fire reponse, union says
Homes destroyed, hundreds evacuated as Christchurch Port Hills fires rage
Lost homes 'gutting' for firefighters battling Christchurch Port Hills blaze
Damage beyond the flames
Photos: Christchurch Port Hills fire - day four
House burned down in front of his eyes
Christchurch Adventure Park village and base station survive night
Christchurch family devastated their home is ash

Melted metal pools beneath the burned out remains of a car. Christchurch fireman Omar Yusaf helped rescue the Gordon ...

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.

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."

Ad Feedback

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 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?

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 ...

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


Ad Feedback
special offers

Meet Labour's new MP

Labour candidate for New Lynn Deborah Russell is off to Parliament.

Deborah Russell won the New Lynn seat for Labour after moving to Auckland to run for Parliament.

Kids cling to capsized boat

Hokianga Rescue pulled three people from the waters of Hokianga Harbour, near Panguru, on Sunday evening.

Mother and two children, aged 4 and 6, rescued from harbour after boat overturns.

Man benefits from weight loss

Raymond Kelly-Steed, with his wife Kyla, has managed to lose 17kg in two months to enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

The Green Prescription programme helped Raymond Kelly-Steed get rid of diabetes with diet and exercise advice.

SH1 blocked after truck overturns

State Highway 1 is closed in both directions after a crash (file photo).

Crash in Kaitaia sees main highway completely blocked in both directions.


Welly nominations open

Nominations for the 2017 Wellingtonian of the Year Awards open today.

Dominion Post Wellingtonian of the Year Awards nominations are now open.

Cycleway solution? video

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester believes his compromise is "common sense" solution for the layout of The Parade.

Wellington now plans to spend $4.1m on new solution to solve Island Bay debacle.

Police tracking escapee's bracelet

A man has escaped his probation officer in Wellington and is now on the run from police.

Man on run from Wellington Police being tracked every step of the way by electronic anklet.

Mussels linked to disease outbreak

Two of the four people who are unwell have eaten mussels gathered on Napier's foreshore.

Four people are sick, and two of them ate mussels gathered at Ahuriri.


Severe gales, lightning

Ten thousand lightning strikes were recorded in two hours on Monday morning.

Winds topple truck, storms bring over 26,000 lightning strikes, while heavy rain hits parts of NZ.

Tree falls on car

A woman has been seriously injured after a tree fell on a car in Canterbury. (File photo)

A woman is seriously injured after a tree fell on her car in Canterbury.

Whitebaiter's 'tragic accident'

Helen Wood died at Kairaki Beach, in North Canterbury, on Friday night. The beach is popular with fishers and ...

Family of woman killed when her car ended up in the ocean say she died "doing what she loved".

Chch's Marshland Rd blocked

A crash between two trucks has closed Marshland Rd to southbound traffic on Monday morning. (File photo)

A collision between two trucks has blocked southbound traffic.


Preparing for peak kitten

Waikato SPCA expects to help at least 3000 animals this calendar year, many of them kittens.

Breeding season is getting longer and this year is expected to be the busiest yet.

Person swept off rocks

The fisher has been swept off the rocks at Papanui Point not far from Ruapuke Beach, south of Raglan.

Emergency services are searching for person who fell into the water at Ruapuke, near Raglan.

Man struck by tree dies

The man was out chainsawing trees when one fell and struck him. He died at the scene.

Man chainsawing on a rural Coromandel property has died after a tree fell on him.

Profit falls, revenue rises - Fonterra

CEO Theo Spierings says Fonterra's strategic direction has set the foundation for a solid performance.

Dairy farmers will be smiling as Fonterra is set to put more cash into their hands.


Memory walk for dementia


A memory walk for Alzheimer's disease travelled along the coastal walkway in New ...

More than 200 people went on a memory walk for Alzheimer's Disease in New Plymouth on Sunday.

Country's coming

Lynn Crawford-Putt, Annie Crawford, Patty Flynn and Colleen Hall are all working on a country music festival that is ...

Taranaki's first big outdoor country music festival will arrive on Waitangi weekend.

Gentlemen's ride for charity video


The Distinguished Gentleman's Ride organiser Jason Corcoran on Sunday.

More than 40 distinguished gentlemen (and ladies) rode their bikes to raise money for charity.

SAR help walkers

Four walkers were rescued off Mt Taranaki's Upper Dive Lake Track after facing thigh-deep snow.

Four people were helped off Mt Taranaki after encountering thigh-deep snow.


Orchestrating exotic orchid blooms

Orchid grower and breeder Allan Rae with some of his 2000-odd cymbidiums.

The annual Manawatū orchid show is ready to bloom.

The election awards

Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway was the big winner in Manawatū on election night.

OPINION: The election results are in, but who were the real winners in Manawatū?

Lido gym takes over ATP site

Community Leisure Management coordinator Sheree McLean and manager Lynden Noakes are excited by the acquisition of the ...

New facility for Lido gym provides more space for high-intensity workouts.

Waitarere lifeguard wins big

Nathan Berry, from the Waitarere surf club, won New Zealand lifeguard of the year.

Horowhenua man named New Zealand surf lifeguard of the year.


A life-changing loss for all

Margaret Lacy holds a picture of her late husband Peter Lacy who had ...

Dementia affects tens of thousands of Kiwis, eventually taking everything from them.

Wet spring for region

It's been a wet September in the Nelson/Tasman region, with higher than average rainfall.

Spring starts out on the wrong foot in Nelson but it's not all bad news.

Food with a view

Chef Prateek Rawat from the Slip Inn cafe in Havelock.

Havelock's Slip Inn serves up a waterfront view with plenty of entertainment from the nearby boat ramp.

Truck rolls on Lewis Pass

A truck and trailer has rolled on State Highway 7, north of Hanmer Springs, blocking one lane. (File photo)

A truck and trailer has rolled, blocking one lane of the highway.


Love is wild

Rebecca Stoner, a florist at Forget Me Not, left, and Jessica Bunting, designer at Betty and Co, work on one of their al ...

It can be pretty wild trying to organise a wedding, especially these days.

Looking to the future

National's Stuart Smith, centre, celebrates with his family, from left, Hugo Smith, Fenella Smith, Julie Smith and Louis ...

As results are revealed, what's next for the winners and losers?

Librarian appeals apology order

Former Rai Valley Area School librarian Faye Leov in 2010 after receiving an apology from the school board for her ...

A former school librarian behind a defamatory letter claiming her former boss was a bully is to appeal a judge's decision to make her apologise.

Care switch 'upsetting'

Pamela Duffy has built up a close relationship with her carers, who will no longer be visiting her at home after the ...

For the past two years, she has built up a relationship with her carers. Next week, she may never see them again.

South Canterbury

Call for model plane size limits

South Canterbury Model Aero Club vice-president Robbie Hellewell launches his Parkzone Visionair AS3X aircraft into the ...

Safety concerns prompt SC Aero Club to call for more rules around model aeroplanes.

High winds, power out

A power pole was on fire on Ealing Montalto Rd on Monday morning. MetService meteorologist John Law said inland South ...

Motorists warned to take care as South Canterbury hit by high winds, heavy rain.

Hotel granted consent

Plans for the hotel on Lakeside Drive, in Tekapo.

New luxury Tekapo hotel a step closer after being granted resource consent.

Hospital Radio honours region

Hospital Radio announcer Ron Parmenter broadcasts live in the studio on Sunday

Timaru's Hospital Radio to play only South Canterbury music on anniversary day.


Two MPs for Clutha-Southland

Clutha-Southland New Zealand First candidate Mark Patterson watches his leader Winston Peters, give his coalition speech ...

Clutha-Southland has a new New Zealand First MP, Lawrence farmer Mark Patterson.

Revealing ancient and heavenly stories at Cardrona

Cardrona astronomy guide Alex Thom peers through Cardrona's new telescope.

Cardrona Alpine Resort is reaching for the skies with its new visitor attraction.

Flames beat back rescuers

The fire was in one unit in a block of four.

Neighbours reportedly tried to rescue the occupant of a Dunedin flat where a person died overnight.

Woman rescued, police thank app

A Christchurch woman was found on Ben Lomond, near Queenstown, about 12am on Friday.

A Christchurch woman was rescued from a Queenstown mountain after her husband tracked her location through a phone app.


And then there were four

Mark Patterson: secure at 7th.

Southland will have four MPs. How much influence is that?

South's election night

It was all smiles for Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie, pictured here with her husband Mark Billcliff.

Invercargill will have two MPs in Parliament, Labour's Liz Craig and National's Sarah Dowie.

Dangers of drinking while pregnant highlighted

Drinking while pregnant affects the health of the unborn baby.

A campaign is bering launched to stop southern women from drinking alcohol while pregnant.

Rural firefighters training 

Rural firefighters David Saathof and Kevin Carter fight a scrub fire during an officer training course at Sandy Point in ...

Rural firefighters from crews in Otago and Southland were taking the next step at an officer training course.

Ad Feedback