Second guessing is easy but an inquiry is necessary

BEVAN READ & TONY WALL

Hot spots are being dampened using pool water within the fire zone.

OPINION: I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to be chasing fire engines but I was prepared to make an exception this week for the Christchurch fires.

As I live on the verge of the brown hills near the city, fire driven by often strong summer winds is probably a bigger worry for us than earthquakes. It's not hard to imagine a fire quickly doing a lot of damage and causing havoc in our frequently parched area. 

Residential enclaves along the coast are at risk but we shouldn't forget the precious areas of regenerating bush which has taken lifetimes to establish.  

Pretty warm up here: Victoria Park ablaze at the Harry Ell track above Dyers Pass Road.
Martin van Beynen

Pretty warm up here: Victoria Park ablaze at the Harry Ell track above Dyers Pass Road.

The fires this week started about 20kms away from our home, so we were well away from the action.

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In my reporting role I got a bit closer than most this week. I have a particular talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time to cover disasters effectively but as I drove home on Monday night, over the pass dividing the city from Governors Bay, I saw flames rising from the brush on my right side below the Summit Road.

The Marleys Hill fire just starting at dusk on Monday about 7pm.
Martin van Beynen

The Marleys Hill fire just starting at dusk on Monday about 7pm.

About 200m from the Sign of the Kiwi near Marleys Hill  the fire was already sweeping through the brush watched only by a few mountain bikers who had already called the fire brigade.

The wind was pushing the fire in a south-easterly direction away from a stand of pine trees and, to use a cliche, threatening to get out of control.

A volunteer brigade arrived soon afterwards. At the time of writing I'm unsure whether that fire spread into the valley below Dyers Pass but by Wednesday night parts of Victoria Park, about 500m from Marleys Hill, were alight.  

As deadline approached on Wednesday we needed some new images and I went up to Victoria Park thinking the area would be crawling with fire fighters but not a sausage. An easterly wind was blowing the fire westwards, fortunately back towards areas already burnt to cinders earlier.

Wednesday night: The view from residences below the Sigh of the Takahe on Dyers Pass Road.
Martin van Beynen

Wednesday night: The view from residences below the Sigh of the Takahe on Dyers Pass Road.

A solid nor-wester would have created a whole new set of problems and clearly authorities had decided to let Victoria Park go because on Wednesday night all the action was in around parts of Worsleys and Hoon Hay Valley Roads above Westmorland, parts of which were evacuated.

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Clearly a massive effort by lots of good people has gone into fighting these fires and looking back with only parts of the picture available might not be helpful. But there is no doubt a thorough inquiry is justified for many reasons.

But looking back over the last three days it seems amazing the fires raged for so long. 

By Wednesday afternoon the fires had been blazing for 48 hours and getting more serious. In those 48 hours the fires were never under complete control and in the next 10 hours another six homes were destroyed and hundreds of people had to be evacuated.

A pine tree in Victoria Park near the Harry Ell track flares in a fire on Wednesday about 11pm.
Martin van Beynen

A pine tree in Victoria Park near the Harry Ell track flares in a fire on Wednesday about 11pm.

To state the obvious, sorry, given the risks in the dry Christchurch and Selwyn hills, the fires that started on Monday needed to be doused as quickly as possible. The most dangerous time for fire is at night when the helicopters and their monsoon buckets can't fly and fire crews are hamstrung by the dark and lack of information. 

So questions need to be asked about the effort in those crucial first 12 hours.

Maybe nothing more could have been done but there appears to be doubt over whether the right people were in charge and that enough resources were at their disposal.

Fires near the Harry Ell track, Victoria Park, fanned by easterly winds about 11pm on Wednesday.
MARTIN VAN BEYNEN

Fires near the Harry Ell track, Victoria Park, fanned by easterly winds about 11pm on Wednesday.

A look at the flow of information coming from officials needs to be probed as well. At one stage we were told 40 houses had been destroyed, at another that the fires had been contained and not to worry.

For those with houses in the zone, the situation was even worse. For instance residents gathered at a cordon at the bottom of Worsleys Rd on Thursday morning were desperate for information and to return to their houses to see for themselves.

Enough police to fill four police cars were gathered at that point and more were up the hill. By that stage the fire had burned out and police could easily have relayed residents up the hill to check on pets and property. 

Stuff photographer Iain McGregor and I made our way up Worsleys Road to find residents and an elderly couple looking at the damage from various vantage points.

Yet the police were only too keen to get us – the professional information gatherers – out of there. On the threat of arrest – we were apparently obstructing them in their job of protecting the public – we had to back off.

I asked them if they minded giving us a ride down the hill.

"You can get f....d," came the reply.

At the risk of severely straining the sympathy of readers, who generally hold the police and firefighters in the highest esteem, the exchanges seem symptomatic of an unhelpful relationship between the media and the authorities in disasters like this. 

Officials are often hopeless at providing a flow of consistent accurate information and generally contemptuous of the media. 

We are often treated as irresponsible children instead of adults who have covered earthquakes, floods and other disasters for many years. They can rest assured we aren't going to blame them if things go wrong. A bit of co-operation would go a long way.

Anyway, I digress. 

At this stage tired helicopter pilots and fire crews deserve all our gratitude and admiration.

But it's difficult to avoid the impression that something went very wrong in the way these fires were fought.

 - Stuff

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