The Pigeon Valley Fire
The 2019 Pigeon Valley fire was New Zealand’s biggest forest fire since 1955 when 3150 hectares of forest was destroyed at Balmoral, north of Christchurch. Fifteen thousand hectares burned in the central North Island in 1986, but that was largely tussock.
Even before arriving at the scene of the Pigeon Valley Fire, first responder, Robert Neame, was asking for more appliances.
On that clear, blue sky, day, he and his crew were driving towards a curtain of grey smoke. When they arrived, flames were climbing through the scrub and young pines on the side of the valley.
Robert is one of three firemen who live just sprinting distance of the Wakefield station. The siren went off at 2:17pm. Within six minutes, he was at the station preparing for departure.
He and a crew of four other volunteer firemen were first on the scene, just four kilometres up the valley. He initially thought that the fire could be contained, but this hope quickly evaporated as the swirls of flames engulfed vegetation either side of the inferno.
2:13, 5 February 2019
photo by Joel Scott, the first to ring 111
This was to be, the baptism by fire for newly formed ‘Fire and Emergency New Zealand’ (FENZ).
FENZ was borne out of the New Zealand Fire Service, an amalgam of forty rural and urban fire brigades. While centralisation often raises guffaws and skepticism, Robert is now a true believer. There’s a lot of good to be said for the New Zealand Fire Service. Within its ranks there was selfless, talented and courageous people, but these assets were squandered for lack of resources and co-ordination. Pre-FENZ individual brigades had to raise money by the usual, labour-intensive means such as quiz evenings and sausage sizzles. And then they had to decide what was the best equipment to buy. If that equipment was not readily compatible with that of a neighbouring brigade, precious time would be lost during joint call outs.
The creation of FENZ did away with the need for fund raising. Standardised equipment was supplied to all brigades. FENZ held the view that fire crews were for fighting fires, not fund raising, and they should be provided with the best hardware, centrally sourced and the same as every other brigade across the country. FENZ has also provided better training and utilisation of the best specialists nationally.
2:35 photo by Joel Scott
Fire Command for the South Island is based in Christchurch, but its remoteness proved to be no impediment to its effectiveness. At the Pigeon Valley fire, FENZ efficiently co-ordinated the arrival and deployment of personnel from throughout the country.
FENZ is big on planning, and in Robert’s opinion, that paid off handsomely. The necessary actions had been thought through long before the fire ever started, and decision making was crisp.
Initially, Robert was the man in control, but he was happy to step back as more senior staff came to hand. Previous fires had taught the lesson that it is important to set up a command chain without delay. Robert’s role shifted to evacuating the valley.
Helicopters with monsoon buckets were to play a pivotal role in the battle. Rather than confronting the fire, which is always a lost cause for both men and machines, they would damp down areas beyond the fire, enabling people to safely operate on the ground. Two weeks in, there were twenty-three helicopters and two fixed wing aircraft operating.
When Robert finally got back to the station on the first day, he encountered something even more extraordinary than anything he had seen that day or before. The activities room was full of boxes of food and supplies. During the afternoon and evening, as a one, the community started bringing in supplies. There was a collective consciousness that fire crews would be arriving from far and wide, and they would need to be fueled and rested.
Robert and the other two firemen, who lived close to the station, threw open their homes, inviting everyone to use whatever they needed; a shower, a hose down, a toilet, a couch or the floor.
On the second day (Waitangi Day), a state of emergency was declared.
On the third day the 3000 inhabitants of Wakefield were evacuated.
Robert was part of a team ensuring that everyone was out. Which they were, with the exception of a few welcome visitors. He encountered army and navy personnel stationed throughout the town, keeping watch over properties. While the best of human nature may have come to the fore, there will always be bad eggs that need to be kept in check.
A fire was deliberately lit on Rabbit Island, and then two days later, another one at Walters Bluff. Both were doused by helicopters redirected from the main fight. The Walters Bluff fire was particularly worrisome. Had it grown to critical mass, and crested the Hill, it would have had continuous fuel stretching towards Marlborough. The chances of containing it would be slim, particularly with resources already stretched to the limit.
The Pigeon Valley fire advanced eastward towards Waimea West, with Eves Valley on its left. On its right flank firefighters fought to contain the flames at the head of Teapot Valley. The fire was now poised to destroy homes.
It marched across low vegetation on the valley side making for a mature plantation which, in turn was adjacent to five residences. The fire had the upper hand. Burning ash was landing in the forest.
A man approached Robert and said that he had a bulldozer and two diggers; “Did he need them?” “Absolutely!” Robert replied. The man then got in his ute and drove back down the valley.
The battle raged on, and decision time arrived. Robert made the call to retreat.
No sooner had he uttered those words, than, through the smoke, he saw the lights of a convoy lumbering up the valley. It was the slow-moving bulldozer and diggers. With salvation at hand, Robert withdrew his order, and his men battled on. Robert asked the dozer driver if he and his men could clear a swath up the hillside between the trees and the advancing fire.
Robert has spent his life around heavy machinery, but he was amazed at what unfolded before his eyes. With the bulldozer in the centre and a digger on each flank, they advanced up the hill and a slow walking pace flinging debris to both sides, leaving behind a forty-metre-wide swath of non-flammable earth. Barring an exceptional wind, the fire, had been stopped and five houses were safe. Robert doesn’t know who the man was that shoulder tapped him on that day. Let’s just call him Gabriel.
The Richmond Showgrounds was converted to a land-based Noah’s ark. The moment Otaki based Carolyn Press-McKenzie, founder of HUHA (Helping you help Animals), learnt of our fire, she cancelled her attendance at a tea party with the governor general and boarded the first possible Nelson flight.
On landing, any hopes she had that the fire might have been brought under control, were quickly banished. She set to work immediately, drawing in volunteers, and animal welfare organisation including MPI, Federated Farmers, SPCA, and, of course, the owners of the Showgrounds, the A&P Society. At its peak the showgrounds became home to 956 animals.
Over three weeks: 2400 hectares burned. One house was lost. There was no loss of human life.
In hind-site Robert finds it impossible to differentiate between the days. It was just one big event. He saw extraordinary acts of courage, selflessness and the generosity that comes to the fore in times of crisis.
And in the words of Richard McNamara, overall commander: “In the act of saving others, you save a little of yourself. I believe that we can all benefit from acts of kindness to people in need.”
On 6 March, the Pigeon Valley fire was declared ‘controlled’.