How a Dad's Army of locals helped prevent worse loss in the Port Hills blaze

BEVAN READ/stuff.co.nz

There are lessons to be learned and questions to be answered for Early Valley Road residence.

When a wildfire broke out in Lansdowne Valley in Christchurch's Port Hills on Monday, the Dad's Army Fast Response fire team swung into action.

The informal team had been set up by locals concerned about the fire risk in the tinder dry farming community, and just three weeks earlier they had met to discuss fire protection.

There been many fires in the area over the years, caused by lightning strikes, blown electricity fuses and fireworks. It is thought Monday's blaze was caused by a blown fuse on a pole in Early Valley Rd – locals heard a loud bang beforehand – but police say investigations are ongoing.

The remains of a wheelbarrow at Ken McKenzie's place.
BEVAN READ

The remains of a wheelbarrow at Ken McKenzie's place.

The quick response team had its own firefighting equipment, including water tanks and pumps spread up the valley.

READ MORE:
Analysis: What could have been done to stop the Port Hills blaze?
Devastation of the Port Hills fires from above
Firefighters were sent home early from Christchurch fire response

 

Ken McKenzie has been instrumental is setting up the "Dad's Army" fast response fire team in Lansdowne Valley.
BEVAN READ

Ken McKenzie has been instrumental is setting up the "Dad's Army" fast response fire team in Lansdowne Valley.

 

 

Roger Beattie, whose business card describes him as a "farmer's husband", says the fire started five metres from his property, went around the valley and finished about 100m away.

Ken McKenzie stands by the wreckage of a shed.
BEVAN READ

Ken McKenzie stands by the wreckage of a shed.

He and a neighbour cranked up the quick response fire equipment at 2am Tuesday "and started fighting fires".

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Beattie points to a line in the grass by the side of the road – one side charred black, the other perfectly yellow, untouched by flames.

"That's where I backlit it, I stopped it. A whole lot of firefighters were standing there doing nothing, they couldn't make up their minds. They ran a whole lot of hoses out but I don't know whether they used them.

A car was damaged on the Claude family property.
BEVAN READ

A car was damaged on the Claude family property.

"There just wasn't enough action – they're too concerned about safety. The trouble with health and safety is it's bad for your health and safety – the first response is inaction – 'no, don't do that it might be dangerous'.

"I've spent months fighting peat fires on the Chatham Islands – I know more about fighting peat and grass fires than all those city firemen put together."

Beattie believes the work of locals saved several properties. "If it wasn't for the locals doing stuff, there would have been several houses go up."

Fin Claude in the wreckage of the family home where he grew up.
BEVAN READ

Fin Claude in the wreckage of the family home where he grew up.

He pays tribute to "man of action" Ken McKenzie, a retired NZ Rail fitter, who built a lot of the firefighting equipment and ensured that all the pumps in the valley were working.

McKenzie and wife Denise have 37 hectares on Early Valley Rd and lost a shed, various farm equipment and several ducks. But most of their animals survived and miraculously their house did too, flames licking at the edges but pushed back from the air.

"What saved our place was 34 monsoon buckets that were dropped on the house," Mckenzie says.

The remains of a motorbike at the Claude property.
BEVAN READ

The remains of a motorbike at the Claude property.

A fine layer of ash covers everything in his office, which blew in through an open window. "If one ember had come in, it would have gone up."

McKenzie wasn't able to get near his property as the flames threatened it, but spent 48 hours fighting small blazes with neighbours.

He shares Beattie's concerns about a lack of action. Two houses were burnt down further up Early Valley Rd.

The remains of the Claude family home
BEVAN READ

The remains of the Claude family home

"I believe that the fire could have been stopped further up, saving the two houses we lost. If action had been taken quicker and we'd got more resources to the site...it should have been able to be stopped before it headed towards town.

"If they got helicopters and bulldozers in, it could have been stopped. The issue I have is pretty much the organisation, the level above - there's something drastically wrong."

Meanwhile, Andy Nicholson says he was told he would be arrested if he didn't stop fighting the fire. 

A video filmed by his 19-year-old son Robert shows Nicholson driving up to a neighbour's house to try battle the blaze before realising the situation was too dangerous.

"The most important thing is to get to a fire early [but] by the time we got to Ken's place this thing was astronomical. The fire had rocketed up to the edge [of the road]. It had engulfed everything.

"We knew we couldn't stop the fire so we got out of there."

He went back to protect his own property, where there is now damage to his pasture and fences. Luckily his house and livestock made it through the fire unscathed.

But, he said, a policeman forced him to leave nevertheless, allegedly saying he would be arrested if he didn't comply with the evacuation order. 

Nicholson said he and some of his neighbours have made a formal complaint about the officer.

Police released a written statement saying they were discussing the incident with Nicholson directly.

"Canterbury Police District Commander, Superintendent John Price, had spoken personally to Mr Nicholson about the Civil Defence operation, including aspects involving Police," the statement said.

"Superintendent Price looks forward to continuing to discuss the matter with Mr Nicholson in the near future."

McKenzie chokes up when he thinks of the amount of work ahead.

"I'm a person who gets a bit emotional about things. This is tough. I've lost 20 years of trees and landscaping we'd done around this place - it's going to take the rest of my life, whatever that is, to get it back to how it was."

As an indication of how much fire risk plays on people's minds in this valley - McKenzie was down the road talking to a mate about using ponds on his land to supply fire engines in the event of a blaze, when his wife rang screaming: "Fire!"

He says climate change is a "massive factor" - in recent years "we've been getting different weather, dry weather patterns."

While the McKenzies and Nicholson had a lucky escape, further up the valley the Claude family was not so lucky.  Fin Claude, 17, a student at Rudolf Steiner, stands in the smouldering ruins of the family home - the only home he's ever known.

"I'm pretty upset. It's the only house me and my sister have ever lived in - dad built it with his mates and brothers."

Fin was out from friends on Monday when he got a call from his mother, saying simply "don't come home".

"I could hear in her voice, and my sister crying in the background."

His sister, Ruby, had been out for a jog and his mum Katie was sitting in the kitchen when the fire bore down on the property.

"Mum knew it was bad, she jumped in the car and raced up to grab Ruby. As they got home they got a phone call from dad [Phil]. He'd tried to drive up the road but couldn't because of the flames and smoke. He said 'run down the valley as fast as you can'.

"Mum and Ruby sprinted down a track with the dog and met dad halfway up the track - dad had four-wheel drived right up to the top of a waterfall, and he drove them out."

"By the time they were at the waterfall they could see the flames rushing up the valley."

Fin, meanwhile, had gone to Kennedy's Bush and was looking out over the valley, seeing his home engulfed in smoke.

On Tuesday, the family were allowed through a cordon.

"We were told the house had been singed, and we'd be able to get a bit of stuff out - when we arrived it was pretty clear that we weren't getting much out of here.

"Some of that stuff we're never going to get back, every photo album, great granddad's rifle, stuff like that, everything you can think of in your house really.

"Although we lost everything, we're just thankful they got out."

 - Stuff

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