Lost homes 'gutting' for firefighters battling Christchurch Port Hills blaze

MORNING REPORT/RNZ

Fire investigators are heading back up the Port Hills in Chch this morning, determined to find the cause of the fires which have ravaged the area this week.

Twists of corrugated iron and concrete block walls are all that remain of the house, but the caravan is white and gleaming not 30 metres away.

Operational Commander Mark Elstone was here – on top of the rise on Worsleys Rd – when it happened, when the fire kicked up on Wednesday afternoon. They'd been fighting the blaze on the other front, on the opposite side of the hill, when it looped around behind them, almost cutting them off.

The four crews of firefighters – the 16 guys who'd been holding the line of houses all afternoon – had to get the hell out of there.

City Care Firefighter Asipeli Osai keeps coming back to fight the fire. He's hopeful he will be able to return to his ...
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

City Care Firefighter Asipeli Osai keeps coming back to fight the fire. He's hopeful he will be able to return to his home in the evacuation area soon.

"It was chaos," Elstone says. "Absolute chaos."

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In his 30 years on the job, he's never seen anything like it. The smoke was so thick, visibility was down to a couple of metres and they had to breathe through respirators.

St Albans firefighter Keys Kerdemelidis-Kiesnowski rinses his smoke-filled eyes.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

St Albans firefighter Keys Kerdemelidis-Kiesnowski rinses his smoke-filled eyes.

"I've fought some big fires, but this is the sort of stuff you see on TV in Australia."

In this rural landscape of pines and dry grass, fire travels like water, taking the path of least resistance, Elstone says.

The caravan was saved by the clump of trees behind, which absorbed that surge of energy. In front of the mangled house, a couple of wheel hubs are all that remain of the car.

Burnt remains of a tennis ball during the recent fires on Worsleys Rd, in Christchurch's Port Hills.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Burnt remains of a tennis ball during the recent fires on Worsleys Rd, in Christchurch's Port Hills.

The apparently random pattern of damage is repeated all over Worsleys Rd.

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The green tennis court saved the house further down the road, where fire and conservation crews are digging out smouldering stumps to prevent further flare-ups. Judging by the scale, it could be days before the hotspots are dampened down enough for residents to return to their homes.

A half-charred tennis ball down the bank charts the flame's path, one side still a fluffy yellow, the other a crispy blackened mess, like a mouldy old shrivelled orange.

St Albans fire crews and DOC staff work on the smouldering burnt remains of properties from the recent fires near ...
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

St Albans fire crews and DOC staff work on the smouldering burnt remains of properties from the recent fires near Worsleys Rd.

Fatigue is beginning to tell. Bruce walks up the driveway, his eyes as vacant as a bottomless well.

Keys Kerdemelidis-Kiesanowski puts down his shovel and removes his glasses to rinse out his smoked-out eyes.

The St Albans veteran was out Monday night and Wednesday night and again Thursday night. There are ash flecks in the 56-year-old's moustache and the fatigue headaches are biting. "I'm unable to think properly at times. I'm not completely compus…" he says, trailing off as he fails to find the words.

DOC's Bruce Webster works on the smouldering burnt remains of properties.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

DOC's Bruce Webster works on the smouldering burnt remains of properties.

Like everyone, he's pulling 24-hour shifts. He's been out since 6pm last night and he doesn't knock off until 6pm. Before sleep, he'll shower to rinse the fire's imprint off his skin.

"There are so many carcinogens in the smoke you don't know about. Over there, there's tannalised wood. Your skin is this huge organ that just absorbs it. You've got to get those carcinogens off your body."

The fluoro orange ink marks anything unstable, Elstone warns. Outside another mangled mess of iron, whose window frames now touch the sky, there's a whole row of orange crosses on still-standing trees.

St Albans firefighter Murray Jamieson has been working 24-hour shifts during the fires on Christchurch's Port Hills.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

St Albans firefighter Murray Jamieson has been working 24-hour shifts during the fires on Christchurch's Port Hills.

Elstone surveys the road as it rumbles past. The toppled wheelbarrow next to a burnt-out skeleton of a house, its wool-bag of grass clippings still green and fresh.

The red snakes of fire hoses wending across lawns, down driveways, carrying the scarce water in case it's needed. The half-boat, the whole Audi. The mash of metal. The greenhouse exploded in the heat. The lost woolly sheep; the lone roaming chook.

He's pleased he kept his guys safe, but devastated homes were lost on his watch.

Jenna Thoms, of DOC, works to contain hotspots on the Port Hills.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Jenna Thoms, of DOC, works to contain hotspots on the Port Hills.

"Being urban firefighters, we pride ourselves on saving property. We rarely lose a property. The fact substantial houses have been lost, is gutting."

But still, he'll carry on, until 8am Saturday, and then he'll be out again tomorrow night.

"We just do it," say Kerdemelidis-Kiesanowski. "There's a professional sort of pride."

 - Stuff

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