The new age of fire: Why infernos like Port Hills could become more common

by Rebecca Macfie / 27 March, 2017
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It was a hot, dry Monday in an otherwise indifferent summer. After a wet and verdant spring, the growth had browned off rapidly in a rainless February. A parching nor-west wind was flowing down from the mountains and across the Canterbury Plains.

It was a perfect day for a fire.

Denise McKenzie was at home, on a steep hillside above the Lansdowne Valley. She had the windows shut to keep out the hot, irritating wind. It was about 5.45pm when she noticed the sky go black. Then she saw a wall of flame.

She was – literally – the first in the line of fire. The blaze had started near power poles on the valley floor below the 40ha home and property she shares with husband Ken. There’s speculation that the initial spark came from a blown fuse or wires crossing in the wind*. Whatever started it, there was plenty of flammable fuel – long, dry grass and gorse – to bring it quickly to ferocious life. With the wind behind it, the fire front raced up the hill towards the McKenzies’ house at about 150m every couple of minutes.

Denise dashed outside and tried to call 111, but couldn’t get through. She called for their dog, Meg, but the animal is deaf and didn’t come. The smoke was so dark she thought a vehicle must have caught fire.

“I just knew I had to get in the car and get out,” she says. By that time, the flames were across the road and leaping higher than the house. She phoned Ken, who was at the end of the valley with another property-owner discussing water sources for future firefighting, and yelled, “Fire!” With the flames at her left shoulder, she tore down the steep, narrow gravel road that goes to their house and several other properties, to the valley floor.

Up and down the valley of 30-odd homes and lifestyle blocks on the outskirts of Christchurch, residents became alert to something having suddenly changed. At the end of the road, Babs Theinert-Brown and her two daughters were visiting an elderly neighbour when they heard a loud bang. The power flickered and died, and a few minutes later, the sky filled with black and yellow smoke. One of the girls sprinted to tell another near-neighbour, Andy Nicholson, who immediately deployed his firefighting trailer with a 1000-litre water tank and high-pressure hose. With his son, Robert, and Babs’ husband, Derek – a former rural firefighter – he headed up the steep side road to try to save the McKenzies’ home.

They passed Phil Claude on the narrow road. He had been on the plains and looked up to the hills to see a huge plume of smoke in the vicinity of his house. He headed home immediately, trying to get up the same steep side road from which Denise McKenzie had fled. He was forced back by the flames.

Claude could see that his home and 40ha property – which had become a haven for kereru and bellbirds after his two decades of native planting – were next in the fire’s path. He yelled to his wife over the phone to grab their daughter and run down a well-maintained escape track to waterfalls on the valley floor, then drove across farm tracks to rescue them.

Meanwhile, Nicholson and his small firefighting crew carried on up to the McKenzies’ house, but he says the fire was “unstoppable”. They checked the house was empty, quickly dumped water around the property, then retreated. On their way down the hill, they passed Ken McKenzie and a fireman. Nicholson turned them back, telling his neighbour: “It might take the house, Ken.”

Miraculously, it didn’t. It turned decades of planting and landscaping into char, but the brick house was saved by the fact that Denise had almost all the windows shut to the nor-wester, so no embers flew in;  by the neighbours’ quick watering work; and by choppers with monsoon buckets. Twelve-year-old Meg was traumatised, but otherwise unharmed.

But the fire raced on up the hill. Claude’s timber home, which had remained upright through the earthquakes, was incinerated, reduced to the detritus of burnt-out kitchen appliances, molten glass and roofing iron, surrounded by blackened skeletons of trees. Severely damaged, too, was an area of recovering bush that he had protected under covenant.

Phil Claude. Photo/Rebecca Macfie

Blackened path

Others in the valley had, meanwhile, gone to work at the first sign of flames. Roger Beattie, an entrepreneur who lived for years on the Chatham Islands, where he fought numerous peat fires, grabbed shovels and water. Professional firefighters from the city had arrived but – as he puts it – were standing in a “gaggle” with no hoses deployed. He immediately set about back-burning near where the fire had started to create a break to stop the flames heading up to a stand of old pine trees. He then went “walkabout” with torches and a wet towel, beating out small fires that were igniting down the sides of the blackened path of the main fire front.

About 9pm, Nicholson and others who had also been fighting the fire at its flanks and helping to halt its spread down the hillside into homes were ordered out of the valley by police under threat of arrest. One or two were happy to go; others were – and remain – angry and frustrated. Others still, including Ken McKenzie and Roger Beattie, evaded authorities and fought on through the night, using firefighting equipment owned by valley residents.

As darkness fell, four helicopters that had been dropping water from monsoon buckets had to stop. At 10.30pm, Fire Service crews were stood down and sent back to base, leaving a standing crew with a couple of tankers and an appliance on the valley floor. At 2am, the fire was threatening houses again and they were called back.

By the next day, things were calm enough for some residents to return and don knapsack sprayers to quell hotspots. But the fire front continued advancing across the Port Hills, fuelled by gorse, broom, grass and pines. From about 7pm on the Monday, Department of Conservation-led firefighters had also been fighting a second, unrelated fire*, about 4km from the Lansdowne Valley at the top of the Port Hills.

By the Tuesday night, the main fire front had crested the hills and was reaching down towards the harbour settlement of Governors Bay. By Wednesday, it was advancing on Christchurch’s hill suburbs, to within 60m of homes in Kennedys Bush, threatening Westmorland, and burning into Worsley Spur and Hoon Hay Valley, where six houses were destroyed.

The wind had swung around to the north-east, and on the Wednesday evening – the third night of fire – the flames came almost full circle, back down into the Lansdowne Valley where it had started. The residents had been asked to attend a public meeting nearby, and when they emerged, they looked up the hill to see the fire heading down at terrifying speed towards the property of Warren and Vilma Flanagan, who had evacuated on the first night. Their home, which was severely earthquake damaged six years ago and had been rebuilt only a few months earlier, was destroyed with much of their 40 years of landscaping and fencing.

As midnight approached on the Wednesday, the city was in crisis. A firefighting pilot was dead and the two fires had joined up to become a beast with what one fire chief called “multiple heads”. The flames could be seen from afar, hundreds of homes were threatened, residents from part of the large hill suburb of Cashmere were being evacuated and plantations on the city fringe were ablaze. The burning pines generated so much heat that the water from monsoon buckets would evaporate before reaching the flames.

As Marlborough’s principal rural fire officer, Richard McNamara – who was called in to lead the air “attack” after the fatal crash of chopper pilot Steve Askin on the Tuesday – put it, the fire had the energy of “two to three atom bombs”. At one point, it reached a large stand of sprayed gorse and generated a fire tornado about 50m high, the like of which McNamara has never seen in years of fighting wildfires in New Zealand, Australia and North America.

The worst was over by the following night. But by then the fire had burnt itself into the record books as one of the most significant ever experienced in New Zealand. There have been fires covering larger territory – including the Wither Hills inferno near Blenheim in 2000 and the Alexandra blaze of 1999 – but they hadn’t destroyed nine homes, threatened a major metropolitan area, or caused the evacuation of hundreds of households.

Pilot Steve Askin with his wife Elizabeth.

Grief and frustration

Back in the Lansdowne Valley, the adrenaline that kept people going through the disaster has started to abate, but grief and frustration about the response to the fire in its first hours are still smouldering. Why were able-bodied and well-prepared residents evicted from the valley on the first night? Why would professional and rural fire crews deprive themselves of access to their local knowledge and skill?

Why weren’t more helicopters with monsoon buckets deployed sooner? Why were crews sent home at 10.30 on the first night when the fire was still burning? Why weren’t bulldozers despatched to carve fire breaks up ridges to stop the flames spreading from Lansdowne Valley across the Port Hills?

Could the fire have been prevented from becoming a major disaster if different decisions had been made at the beginning?

Beattie is adamant things need to change. “We have to move away from this culture where you have to have a ticket for firefighting, and allow people to stay and fight on their own properties.”

For years, the Lansdowne Valley residents have maintained a community firefighting team. McKenzie, a recently retired fitter whom Beattie describes as a “wonderful engineer”, had purpose-built a four-wheel-drive firefighting unit and, just a couple of weeks before the fire, led a team of about a dozen locals on a tour of properties to check the location and maintenance of all tanks and hoses. Among those assets were tanks on Nicholson’s property with 90,000 litres of stored water, which weren’t used because he was kicked out of the valley and fire crews didn’t know it was there.

It was a community that conformed in many respects with what the National Rural Fire Authority calls “FireSmart”. The authority’s published advice on fires on the “rural-urban interface” – where urban housing has developed in areas surrounded by lots of flammable vegetation – says “houses will survive if people stay to put out any small fires that start in and around them … Communities potentially at risk from wildfire should be allowed and encouraged to take responsibility for their own safety. Where adequate fire-protection measures have been put in place, able-bodied people should be encouraged to stay.”

Yet it seems that philosophy was not embraced by authorities responding to this fire. In the aftermath, Nicholson argues local property-owner and farmer teams such as the Lansdowne Valley’s need to be formally integrated into the national firefighting strategy, provided with training and seconded into the firefighting effort when fire breaks out.

Scion: Rural Fire Research

Immediate evacuation

But allegations of a sluggish and bullying response sting fire officials whose crews laboured for days against an extremely large, difficult and complex fire. Yes, nine houses were lost, but what about the hundreds that were saved? What about the fact that the greatest tragedy was the loss of pilot Steve Askin, who died protecting homes?

Selwyn District principal rural fire officer Douglas Marshall and the Fire Service’s Christchurch area commander, Dave Stackhouse, responded to the criticisms in an interview with the Listener. To the argument from Beattie and others that locals should have been able to stay and fight, Stackhouse says, “With a fast-moving rural fire, we have to determine, ‘What’s the threat?’, and if the threat requires immediate evacuation, sometimes the niceties or the local intelligence gets forgotten.”

Confronted with locals adamant they want to stay and fight, he says, “I have to make a judgement call … We try to thin our span of control down. It’s like a filter. If you don’t have a span of control, you get overwhelmed.”

Marshall says they did make use of locals, including in the next valley where two property owners with contracting experience and heavy machinery were allowed to defend their own plantations on the second morning of the fire. “That’s because we knew them, they were giving us logical plans, and they were able to implement those for us on our behalf.”

By the second and third days, Lansdowne Valley locals such as Beattie and Nicholson were – at times – allowed to work alongside fire crews. Beattie says at one point he was using his high-pressure spray kit with a 550-litre water tank to put out hotspots when a fire officer threatened to throw him out; the fireman then asked to borrow his rig.

What about helicopters and monsoon buckets? Why weren’t there more, and sooner? Stackhouse and Marshall say the first chopper on the scene evacuated people from a house that was then destroyed, then did a reconnaissance trip to get “eyes in the sky”. By the end of the night, four choppers were dropping water from monsoon buckets, which was as many as were available.

“There was no delay in the response,” says Stackhouse. “The helicopters are a commercial entity. We don’t have the ability to have them on standby.”

Highly flammable gorse

Marshall says there were large areas of highly flammable gorse and broom on the hillside, and “one of the challenges for firefighters is figuring out what they can realistically do. The challenge in these hill environments where you don’t have a council water main is where do you put your resources safely to make a difference?”

Why send big lumbering city fire trucks that couldn’t handle the steep rural terrain? Marshall says rural fire teams are not full time; their members have day jobs and it takes time to get them on site. The big fire engines were there to protect houses, which they did successfully.

As for the stand-down of crews at 10.30 on the first night, when the fire was still burning, he says a “standing watch” was maintained. “You cannot put people into fires at night, particularly in this hill terrain … The fire had roared through at that stage, there was little that one could do into the night. You can’t fly helicopters … because they can’t see.” A standing crew was kept in the valley, under orders not to leave the road and to call when an agreed line was crossed in terms of the fire approaching houses. That happened just after 2am.

The stand-down of city crews triggered outrage from the Professional Firefighters Union, with national secretary Derek Best demanding an inquiry and saying firefighters were left feeling “frustrated and bewildered” at being sent away.

Stackhouse is unapologetic. A line in the sand had been drawn, and although crews could see the flames from their city stations, that line wasn’t crossed until 2am.

What of Beattie’s allegation of a “scandalous failure” to deploy bulldozers to make fire breaks in the early stages of the blaze to prevent its spread? Again, the fire chiefs stand by their decisions. Stackhouse says bulldozers were used on the third night of the fire, on Worsley Spur. But the head of Lansdowne Valley is “not the sort of terrain to just go running a bulldozer … Like aerial resources, they require co-ordination. They are like heavy artillery, used to deny the fire travel. So you have to align it, you have to have someone supervising, you have to be working to a co-ordinated plan, it has to be safe, and it takes time because they don’t move fast … So it’s not as clear-cut as just running a bulldozer up that hill.”

Marshall has heard the criticisms that fire crews didn’t immediately “sprint to get the hoses out” after arriving in the valley. “But the first thing you’ve got to do is size up the risk, and in a rural scene – and I’m not saying in this case that’s necessarily right – letting a fire run is not necessarily the wrong thing to do. Like any situation where it’s dangerous, you don’t just run in.”

Stackhouse says he is “absolutely proud” of the effort his crews put in. “Everyone on that fire ground did their best to protect the life threat and the properties.”

Black stain of destruction

Given the enormous black stain of destruction left by the fire – visible from across Christchurch City – it’s unlikely the controversy will settle quickly. But for dry eastern parts of New Zealand – including Hawke’s Bay, where a wildfire destroyed one house in February, and near Hanmer Springs, which had a large fire last week – the Port Hills disaster is a call to action and awareness.

Not only are the risks of wildfire expected to rise significantly as a result of climate change [see graphic], with warmer temperatures and lower rainfall and humidity, but the pattern of urban development is exacerbating the risk.

Richard McNamara describes the Port Hills fire as a “portent of things that could potentially happen again because we are building more and more lifestyle blocks on the edge of towns. We are putting human habitation into areas that were traditionally farmland or forestry or scrublands.”

Like Marshall and Stackhouse, McNamara’s hackles rise at the accusations that more could have been done to contain the fire. If fingers of blame are being pointed, he’s willing to allocate a share of responsibility to property owners themselves.

“When you build in those areas, there is also a risk that you inherit,” he says. “The Fire Service doesn’t inherit that risk; you do if you build in there.”

McNamara says urban-fringe and lifestyle-block development is an issue in wildfire zones worldwide, and was a feature of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria when 173 people died. City people had increasingly been moving into traditional farming settlements, but often didn’t have the same “affinity and visceral understanding of the risk of living in these areas as the original farming community”, he says. “So they have eucalypts right up to the eaves because they want shade and shelter and privacy. On that day, it was 45-48°C, blowing 50-80km/h. So, they got into their houses, closed the windows, had the air conditioning on and the cricket on the telly. And the fire came along. Some of them didn’t see the fire coming, even though the warnings had been broadcast.”

He says homeowners have to create a “defensible space” around their homes – keeping structures and houses clear of overhanging trees and gutters free of dry leaves, and creating a setback of mowed grass and plants with low flammability. This reduces the risk of the house catching fire in the first place, and creates a safe space for firefighters to work if it does.

In a crisis, firefighters have to decide which properties are worth defending. He describes working on a fire in Montana, when crews used disposable paper dinner plates with 1, 2 or 3 written on them to triage the properties. “We walked along making assessments of houses, and we would nail a plate to the letter box. If it had a 1, the crews would make every attempt to save that house, because it could be saved – it had enough defensible space around it. If it had a 2, it meant that if we had time, we could give it a crack, but it stood a reasonable chance of being burnt because of the amount of fuel around the house. If it had a 3, there was no way you could save that house, and no work was done.”

Lifestyle blocks are often not economic units, which makes the cost of fencing and livestock a challenge. Hence, says McNamara, they are often under-grazed, resulting in a high fuel load of long, dry grass through the most dangerous part of the fire season. In the Lansdowne Valley, paddocks that had been grazed are obvious in the aftermath of the fire, bearing little sign of damage, whereas neighbouring paddocks of long grass have been scorched.

Dryland pastures specialist Derrick Moot, of Lincoln University, says the Port Hills fire is also symptomatic of the worldwide tension between graziers and those who prefer to exclude stock to allow native vegetation to recover. But he says in dry parts of eastern New Zealand, it is inviting catastrophe to simply shut out stock and wait for the bush to grow back. The reduction in grazing on the dry faces of the Port Hills was a “recipe for disaster” and a devastating display of what happens when “stock numbers are too low and nature is left largely unchecked to clean up the vegetation”.

The Port Hills fire is also likely to trigger soul-searching about the role of gorse in the landscape. Native to Spain and Portugal and imported by British settlers for hedges and windbreaks, gorse rapidly became a prolific hill-country weed reviled by farmers. But its reputation has been resurrected in recent years as a species to be worked with, not against. Environmentalists often value its qualities as nitrogen-fixer and nursery crop, leaving it in place to protect regenerating native bush, which will ultimately grow tall enough to suppress it.

But gorse is also one of the most flammable plants in the world, says Scion wildfire scientist Grant Pearce. It is full of volatile oils that burn even when the plant is green, and retains large amounts of dead needles and wood. Research by Pearce and his colleagues shows that a gorse fire can spread at almost 5km an hour and produce flames 10m high.

Early steps to recovery

The Lansdowne Valley community, wounded by the loss of homes, animals, trees and fencing, has started taking steps towards recovery. The McKenzies have hosted a neighbourhood gathering at their home. And there has been a meeting to plan the reseeding of the scorched hillsides. Beattie says there will be a valley-wide aerial operation to sow the ground with grass and clover this month, “because if we don’t, the gorse will get away”.

There are plans for new tracks, fencing, water supplies and firefighting resources. They’ve sought help from Federated Farmers and rural-supply companies, and donations of native trees have been offered. The to-do list has been typed up, and people are lining up to get things done.

“My idea is not to aim for happiness. It’s to avoid misery,” says Beattie, whose home survived unscathed. “I don’t want to be surrounded by people who are suffering.”

Reduce your risk

  • The National Rural Fire Authority advises homeowners to maintain safe zones around the house, with the first 10m a “priority 1” space. By having well-watered lawns and removing flammable shrubs and trees, dead branches, twigs and leaves from this area, the risk of ignition is reduced.
  • Priority zones two and three should be clear of anything that can support large “crown” fires, which take hold in the canopy of large trees. Dead or dying trees should be removed, and the under-storey of trees thinned to reduce the chance of surface fires climbing into the canopy. Large trees should be pruned and branches at least 2m from the ground or close to powerlines removed. Prunings should be disposed of to avoid a build-up of dry, woody waste.
  • Firewood should be stored away from the house. Wooden decks are a common entry point for wildfires to take hold of houses, so don’t stack firewood under them.
  • Gutters should be kept clear of leaves – embers can fly from burning trees, land in guttering and smoulder for days or weeks and later ignite.
  • Gorse is rated as a highly flammable species.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that are less flammable. Low-flammability native species include: lancewood, five finger, karamu, puka, kawakawa, broadleaf and karaka.
  • Moderate/high flammability natives include totara, ake-ake, tree ferns and mingimingi, and kanuka and manuka are highly flammable. Cabbage trees, rimu, southern rata, kauri and flax are classed as moderately flammable.

*The cause of the fires is still being investigated.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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