The human cost of Christchurch's Port Hills fires video


Visiting some of the properties destroyed and the lucky ones that survived the Port Hills fires.

In the hills above an idyllic mid-Canterbury rural valley lies a pile of heat-warped metal and the charred remnants of everyday life.

It's all that remains of a house that stood at the head of Hoon Hay Valley for over 100 years. February's Port Hills fires put an end to that legacy. 

Five months later, resident Alistair Edwards stood amidst the rubble. It's a devastating sight.

Five months on from the Port Hills fires, destroyed family homes are scattered among the affected valleys.
Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Five months on from the Port Hills fires, destroyed family homes are scattered among the affected valleys.

The only things left are sheets of mangled corrugated metal from the roof and the odd household item – a burnt out oven, a scorched garden hose, the remnants of a car in the garage.

Everything else was incinerated.

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Alistair Edwards and Daisy Hopkins lost their home to the Port Hills fires.

Alistair Edwards and Daisy Hopkins lost their home to the Port Hills fires.

His is one of 11 houses destroyed or damaged in the fires, which started as two separate blazes on February 13. It burned through an area of 1645 hectares, most  privately owned. 

By February 28, the fire was 99 per cent under control. The blaze was declared officially extinguished on April 20, more than two months after the fires started.

Extinguishing the flames cost rural fire authorities almost $8 million dollars, by far the most expensive wildfire in Canterbury's recent history. 

Some items can still be recognised following the fires, but nothing of the Edward's home was salvageable.
Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Some items can still be recognised following the fires, but nothing of the Edward's home was salvageable.

But there was a much heavier cost to the families who lost their homes.  Dumbstruck families are struggling to come to terms with the event five months on as they rebuild their lives.

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For Edwards, one moment of bad luck wiped out years of family memories. He said he experienced it twice – once, when the fire happened, then all over again when filing the insurance claim.

"It can get quite depressing, quite gut-wrenching where you have to go through every single room and every single item.

Edwards said they had exceeded their insurance limit well before they had audited the whole house.
Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Edwards said they had exceeded their insurance limit well before they had audited the whole house.

"You just sit down and think about all those bits and pieces.

"There is absolutely nothing you can do about it."

Despite everything, Edwards maintains gratitude for his family getting out unharmed and for the work colleagues who raised money to try and get the family back on their feet.

There is no longer anyone living at the Edwards' home who can enjoy the views from the hillside.
Joseph Johnson/Stuff

There is no longer anyone living at the Edwards' home who can enjoy the views from the hillside.

The radiology department at Christchurch hospital, where Edwards works as an MRI scanner, set up a donation fund for the family after the fire, which raised over $25,000. 

Family and friends were also quick to help out.

"As much as I didn't want help, that was very, very humbling."

Some of the items lost had been in Edward's family for generations.
Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Some of the items lost had been in Edward's family for generations.

Edwards and his family lost his home on Hoon Hay Valley Rd on the third day of the fires.

That's when the second blaze, from Marleys Hill, crested the slopes overlooking Edwards' house.

Edwards and his family got their final warning to leave not from the police or the fire service, but a digger driver working at the bottom of the valley.

James Frost at a police checkpoint while the fires still raged. He has since returned to his Worsleys Rd home.

James Frost at a police checkpoint while the fires still raged. He has since returned to his Worsleys Rd home.

The driver's warning was well-timed – it gave Edwards and his family just enough time to fill two cars with their most precious items including hard drives with some of the family photos, his daughter's hockey gear and six pieces of artwork.

Edwards himself managed to grab some spare clothes – his other family members, not so much.

"My wife had one change of clothes, my daughter had one change of clothes."

The devastating February fires destroyed homes and a vast area of Port Hills' vegetation.

The devastating February fires destroyed homes and a vast area of Port Hills' vegetation.

Despite the few possessions they salvaged, Edwards was grateful.

"We were lucky. I know some people didn't get anything out," he said.

Edwards said they lost everything else. Priceless artefacts like a Maori carving the family had owned for generations were lost.

Rural fire authority costs for putting out the fires was almost $8 million.

Rural fire authority costs for putting out the fires was almost $8 million.

"It was given to my family by local iwi up in Northland way back when. That can never be replaced."

The fire was so strong it burned the heavy vegetation around the house down to the very roots. It has been five months and much of the area in the valley around the house is still singed black, with grass starting to poke through in scattered locations.

Edwards said they exceeded their total insurance claim well before the family had audited the entire house.

Fires burn in the Port Hills above Christchurch, looking westward from Sign of the Takahe.

Fires burn in the Port Hills above Christchurch, looking westward from Sign of the Takahe.

"When people think of insurance they think 'I've broken a window, I've got to replace it. We don't think of a total loss.

"We've had a really good run with the insurance company."

Edwards and his family have since taken up residence in a little cottage at the bottom of the valley and are now looking for a new place to live.

Aerial firefighting costs for the fires totaled $2.1 million.

Aerial firefighting costs for the fires totaled $2.1 million.

Not everyone has had such a smooth run with insurance. 

James Frost said dealing with insurance after the fire was "the worst experience of my life", and had caused a lot of trauma.

"I've been greatly affected, and the insurance process certainly had an impact on my mental health."

The fire caused extensive smoke damage to possessions throughout the house. About half were able to be cleaned, but the rest were not salvageable. 

He felt he could have used more support and easier access to services like counselling through the disaster relief process.

"You don't realise it until well after, it actually hits you then."

Frost and his partner were living in a rental on Worsleys Rd when the fires swept to the edge of the house, leaving it standing but smoke damaged and unlivable.

They have been back in the Worsleys Rd house for just over a month, after spending six weeks in a caravan.

"We love living here so it was lovely to be back in. It's still a weird place to be though, because you're looking at burnt trees, so it has a totally different feel to it."

He said a bonus from the experience was getting closer to neighbours and having more of a sense of community. 

It's the second time Frost has had to start again, after his Merivale unit collapsed in the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes.

Vilma Flanagan and her family lost their home in Early Valley Rd.

She said her family had still not settled with the insurance company four months later and were biding their time in Queensland.

'We've just jumped on a plane and come out here."

She said she was still shocked at the lack of warning from the authorities despite an indication that the wind was changing.

"The first fire should never have got down to our place. 

"They kept telling us 'everything was fine, everything was fine, we were out of danger.'

"We could have gone in and got our stuff. In three or four hours it came down and took out everything.

"We had to drive around the Akaroa highway at five in the morning with binoculars to see that our house had been burnt down."

Meanwhile Doug and Vikki Pflaum, who also lost their home on Worsleys Rd, had settled with their insurance company and were already planning to rebuild.

Investigators have not worked out how either fire started.

The first began in some grass next to Early Valley Rd, and was pushed up the valley by a nor'wester. Just hours later, a second began 3km to the east, on Marleys Hill, near the sign of the Kiwi. 

It badly damaged the 8-month old Christchurch Adventure Park, which has remained closed since. Decades of conservation work in the Ohinetahi Reserve was consumed by the firestorm. 

Helicopter pilot Steve Askin lost his life when his chopper crashed while he battled the flames. 

Despite the best efforts of those fighting the fires, the two blazes had joined into one huge fire by Wednesday evening. 

Rural Fire services spent more than $7.9 million fighting the fires, including $2.1m on aircraft expenses and $1.8m for staff costs. 

Over $4.5m of that cost went to the Department of Conservation, which contributed over 11,000 staff hours from more than 130 fully-trained rural fire fighters. 

The fires cost insurers $18.3 million dollars – $10.3m from 138 domestic claims, $7.3m from 38 commercial claims, and about $729,000 from 21 other claims. 

Insurance Council of New Zealand chief executive Tim Grafton said people should "make sure they've allowed enough to rebuild in the case of total loss, and that should take into account increased building costs when demand is high".

"We know many homeowners set their sum insured at the value given to them by their insurer or the RV rather than the costs to rebuild from scratch. We can't stress enough this is your home and you know it best, so spend the time now before it is too late."

Rural wildfire investigator Graeme Still is investigating the cause of the fires. He said he expected to be finished his report "within the next couple of weeks", when it would be given to the fire authorities.


The police are also investigating, but their work is in limbo while the cause is determined. 

Detective inspector Greg Murton, who is leading the police investigation, said police had done "as much as we can" until they had a steer on causation. 

 - Stuff


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