Fire and Devastation on the Christchurch Port Hills

Between 13 and 16 February 2017,  the Christchurch Port Hills suffered devastating fires unlike anything ever seen there before.  As I write this on 21 February, the mopping up operations continue. The fire is now apparently well under control, but hot spots remain in the burnt areas.  With hot north-west winds (known locally as ‘norwesters’) in the offing, the danger is not totally over. However, as of 21 February, most hillside residents have been able to return to their homes.

I live at Kennedy’s Bush, one of the focal points of the fire. We watched as the fire went past us on 13 February, only to be threatened again on 15 February.  We were evacuated for 72 hours, but were then able to return  to our home with our property totally unscathed. As I write this, I can hear the helicopters hard at work again passing overhead with their monsoon buckets, and planes dropping fire-retardant materials.

In this post, I share the chronology of the fire as my wife Annette and I  saw it from Kennedy’s Bush. It is largely a pictorial story from the photos we took (click once on each photo to enlarge and show the detail, then use the back button to return to the story), but with a specific focus on the chronology and the contextual background.

First, I want to provide some background for those who do not know much about Christchurch and its Port Hills.

The Port Hills lie in an arc on the edge of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch.  They separate the city from Lyttelton Harbour, rising to a little over 500 metres.  They formed some millions of years ago when Banks Peninsula was a volcano with multiple eruption points.

In the past, Banks Peninsula was heavily forested. But that was more than 100 years go. Now it is predominantly grassland and exotic pine plantations, but with some nature reserves and some man-assisted regeneration of native trees.  The Port Hills are also an important playground for the people of Christchurch, with many walking and mountain-bike trails.

The climate of  Banks Peninsula is complex. In summer time, hot norwesters (which weather people call ‘adiabatic’ or ‘fohn winds’ ) flow across the plains from the Southern Alps. In spring and summer, strong but cool north-east winds often build up in late morning, coming in from the ocean. Then at night, typically some time between 8pm and midnight, they die away again.   At times, southerly storms flow in from the ocean, and the shape of the trees high on Banks Peninsula tells us that these southerlies are dominant vegetation-shaping forces.

February is typically the month when Christchurch experiences its biggest dry periods, with summer rainfall less than half of evapo-transpiration. At this time, the hills take on a tawny hue, with dry grass-seed heads waving in the wind.

And now to the fire itself. In telling that story there are several place names that recur. These are Lansdowne Valley, Kennedy’s Bush, Hoon Hay Valley, Westmorland, Worsley Spur, Marleys Hill, and the Sugarloaf TV and radio transmitters.  These are shown below on a topographical map of the area.

bla

Christchurch topo map (Click to enlarge)

Of course there are many stories of the Port Hills fire, and most of those will remain untold. The people who worked so hard and in many cases heroically in the air and on the ground, are typically not the type of people who then write their stories. I have myself worked in search, rescue and recovery (when I was a much younger man) and despite use of pen and computer as my lifelong tools of trade, I have not written of those events. ( I possibly will do some day.) With this story, I write it from the outside as an on-site observer, with some understanding of the complexities when men and nature interact, rather than in any way as a participant.

The fire began about 5.30 pm on Monday 13  February. The initial unconfirmed evidence is that it was caused by part of a transformer falling from a power pole. What is known is that it started on the lower slopes just above Early Valley Road in the Lansdowne Valley, and was preceded by a loud bang. The fire was seen almost immediately by local residents who called the emergency services, and then got to work, with garden hoses and wet sacks, protecting their own properties from the rapidly growing flames crossing the grassland slopes. Remarkably, most were successful, with nearly all houses being saved on the upper side of Early Valley Road where the flames were raging.

I first became aware of the fire soon after 6pm as I was driving home.  I could see huge plumes of smoke billowing up from the Halswell area. John Campbell was already reporting the fire on his National Radio Program.

My own home is less than 2km from the  starting point of the fire, but the westerly wind was blowing away from where we live and we were protected by the lee of a small hill. It was only by heading up Kennedys Bush Road that we could see what was happening.

 

13th 7.59pm

Looking across to the Lansdowne Valley from Kennedy’s Bush Spur on 13 February  7.59 pm

 

13th 8.05pm

Above the Lansdowne Valley 13 February 8.05 pm

It seems that the first three or so helicopters to be mobilised with monsoon buckets  played a key role in saving these houses (above). Within two hours, the fire had essentially passed on through these grasslands, although the shelter belts were still providing a challenge.

13th 8.06pm

From Kennedy’s Bush Road, looking south towards the Rim of the Port Hills, 13th February 8.06 pm

 

13th 8.22pm

Looking up the Lansdowne Valley, from the plains, 13th February,  8.22 pm

 

13th 8.29pm

Kennedy’s Bush Spur, smoke from Lansdowne Valley (out of sight), 13 Feb 8.29 pm

 

14th 7.06am

Hoon Hay Valley 14th February 7.06 am

By Tuesday morning, 14 February, it seemed that the fire was contained, at least on the Christchurch side of the hills, and that was the essence of the message from authorities to the public. The photo above shows the wind still blowing the smoke from the west, across the photo from right to left. However, high on the Port Hills the fire was still raging.  Indeed there were two fires, with a second one having started at the Marley’s Hill carpark off the Summit Road about 7 pm on the Monday night.   The two fires can be seen here, apparently still separate, although later to join. The cause of the second fire remains unclear, but almost certainly was caused by people, either by accident or an act of arson.

I spent that Tuesday out at Lincoln University, assuming as most people would have done that the 14 helicopters with their monsoon buckets had matters under control. It was only when I returned home that evening I was shocked and devastated to hear that helicopter pilot Steve Askin, a relative and friend of some of my colleagues,  had been killed, possibly caused by a snagged monsoon bucket.

With hindsight, it seems that Tuesday was a lost opportunity. No civil defence emergency had been called, and far too much reliance had been placed on the helicopters which returned at dusk to their operational base near  Tai Tapu, adjacent to the  Lansdowne Valley, or headed back to the main airport.  Also, only very limited quantities of fire retardant had been flown, apparently due to a lack of supply.

15th 7.17am

Hoon Hay Valley, 15th February, 7.17 am

By Wednesday morning 15th February, the wind had changed from west to a gentle southerly. This was enough to drive the fire down the Hoon Hay Valley.  Despite the cool night, with temperatures dropping to 2 degrees C, all of a sudden things were looking more serious on our side of the Port Hills.

15th 10.23am

Halswell Quarry, 15th February 10.23am

The helicopters were now using the ‘duck pond’ in the Halswell Quarry off Kennedy’s Bush Road as a source of water. The smoke in the above photo is coming from the Hoon Hay Valley.

15th 1.01pm

Looking towards the back of the Halswell Quarry Park on 15th February at 1.01 pm

By 1 pm, I was becoming concerned, with the rising easterly wind. I knew that Hoon Hay Valley with its pine plantations was burning, and I could see potential for the fire to travel back over the ridge to Kennedy’s Bush Spur with its 200 houses.

15th 1.03pm

Above the Halswell Quarry, 15th February, 1.03 pm

 

15th 1.21pm

Halswell Quarry, 15th Februry at 1.21 pm

However, the general atmosphere down at the Halswell Quarry was somewhat relaxed. The school children had been brought along in their class groups to watch an inspiring educational event, with helicopters lining up to fill their monsoon buckets.  I recall no presence of any authorities apart from the helicopter pilots, but there may have been one person there in a high viz vest.

15th 2.17pm

At the top of Kennedy’s Bush Road, 15th February, 2.17 pm

By 2 pm I was becoming increasingly concerned, so I headed to the top of the road on Kennedy’s Bush Spur. Remarkably, there were no authorities there.  I realised that once it dawned on the authorities as to what was happening, we would all be evacuated, so I called my wife to say it was time to start thinking about getting home and collecting up key possessions.

15th 2.27pm

From high on Kennedy’s Bush Road, looking towards the south east, 15th February, 2.27 pm

The winds up here were now easterly, posing a bigger threat than if they had been north-east.  Clearly, we were in the line of fire. As I returned down the road I saw one policeman, stopped in his car, talking to a local, but no sign of fire crew  or civil defence.

15th 3.04pm

Above Halswell Quarry, 15th February, 3.04 pm (There are six helicopters to be seen in this photo)

 

15th 3.05pm

Helicopters coming and going from the Halswell Quarry ‘duck pond’, 15th February, 3.05pm

By now, it was obvious that the helicopters were unable to control the developing firestorm. There were six of them heroically working the pond, working with apparently minimal separation, dumping their loads on the ridge separating Kennedy’s Bush from the Hoon Hay Valley. Elsewhere there would have been another (approximately) 8 helicopters fighting the battle on other parts of the Port Hills.

15th 3.19pm

Halswell Quarry 15th February, 3.19pm

 

15th 3.25pm

Above the Halswell Quarry, 15th February, 3.25 pm

The evacuation started about 4.30 pm, with people up the top of the road given no time to collect anything. By Wednesday 6 pm, the police had reached the bottom of the road, going from house to house, and we had all departed in our cars, some more prepared than others. By now a Civil Defence Emergency had been declared, and this was allowing much greater resources to be brought to bear. But it was now getting late in the day.

15th 7.23pm

Hoon Hay Valley from Sparks Road, 15th February at 7.23 pm

 

15th 7.43pm

Worsley Spur, 15th February, 7.43pm

Further around the hills to the north-east, and beyond Westmorland, the fire was attacking Worsley Spur. Several houses were lost on the Worsley Spur.

15th 7.44pm

Between Westmorland and Cashmere, February 15th at 7.44 pm

 

15th 7,45pm

Slopes on the north-east side of Worsley Spur, 15th February at 7.45 pm

 

15th 10.11pm

Worsley Spur, with Westmorland on the left, on 15th February at 10.11 pm

 

15th 10.45pm

Between Westmorland and Worsley Spur on the right, and Cashmere on the left,                                  15th February, 10.45 pm

 

15th 10.48pm

Fire across Dyers Pass Road with the lights of the Sugarloaf transmitters above and left of centre.    15th February 10.48 pm

Once the helicopters withdrew at dusk, all hell broke loose.

The fire did come over the ridge between Hoon Hay Valley and the Kennedys Bush Spur, with 200 houses at risk. It was very fortunate  that the wind then died away about 11pm, sufficiently for the fire to lose much of its energy.

dsdsds

At the top of Kennedys Bush Road and beyond (Source unknown) Thursday 16 February

Details of how and why it stopped where it did stop are unclear (to me).  Certainly, the wind died down about 11 pm. I am told there were no fire crews up there, but maybe there were.  Maybe fire retardant played a role, but I am doubtful. It is only today (21 February) that fixed wing planes have been applying retardant up there, brought in from Australia. All I know is that if the fire had got into what is known as the ‘Crocodile Gully’ (in the left of the photo above) then the whole spur and much of the pine forests above the Quarry and below the houses were at huge risk. It was only 30 metres from happening.

bla

The upper zone of Kennedys Bush Spur six days after the burn, with the Quarry Park below                 (21 February)

 

bla

The top of Kennedys Bush Road after the fire had gone through. (This photo was taken 6 days later, 21 February, when the cordon was relaxed.)

On Thursday 16 February, civil defence  systems finally came into place which should have occurred earlier. Suddenly there were lots of fire tankers, civil defence and police, albeit struggling to get co-ordination. Heavy machinery came in to construct firebreaks, and people could be seen checking for hot spots.

By Saturday 18th February, the 200 Kennedys Spur families were getting very keen to get back to their houses, to address the needs of pets, and to get back to their normal lives. Although 11 houses were lost in the fire, none of those were at Kennedy’s Bush.  However, the authorities who had been slow to react as the fire developed, were also slow to let residents return. They were concerned that if they let us return, then they might have to evacuate us again in one or two days. They were also concerned about supposed hot spots, although when eventually the ‘hot spot’ map was produced (see below) there was only one nearby and this was probably a ‘falsy’ as the fire had not reached that point, and there were also no tree roots there  to create an underground hot spot.

accessed 18th at 8.34pm

Supposed ‘hotspot’ at the top of Kennedy’s Bush Road, accessed from Christchurch City Council website 18th February at 8.34 pm

Some families did manage to get back to their homes on Saturday 18 February and the remainder on 21 February.  Tuesday February 21 also saw major applications from the air of retardant (imported from Australia) across Hoon Hay Valley and Kennedy’s Bush Spur.

Now, some 8 days after the fires began, we can start to reflect. We can wonder in awe at all of those Port Hills houses that are completely surrounded by burned-out land but which are still standing – albeit no doubt with smoke damage in many cases. There must be many untold stories about people on the ground and in the air  who went well beyond the call of duty to save those houses.

bla

Houses on Worsley Spur, surrounded by burnt-out land (21 February)

 

The Christchurch Adventure Park (with chairlift left of centre)

The Christchurch Adventure Park (with chairlift left of centre), 21 February

 

Hoon Hay Valley

Hoon Hay Valley, 21 February

As a community, we will now need to reflect on the type of vegetation we wish to have on the Port Hills in future.  And our officials will need to reflect as to why the response mechanisms were so delayed and so shambolic. It is not as if this is the first disaster New Zealand has had to face. Why do we not have major supplies of fire retardant in the country ready and waiting? And why do we have to rely on individuals rather than proper systems that kick into gear immediately? But they are all questions for the future.

Finally, below is a map showing the boundaries of the fire on both sides of the Port Hills.

accessed 18th at 8.20pm

Accessed from the Christchurch City Council website on  18th February at 8.20pm  (https://www.ccc.govt/services/civil-defence)

 

Advertisements

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Fire, Outdoors with nature, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Fire and Devastation on the Christchurch Port Hills

  1. Honora Renwick says:

    Thanks for your summary. I wonder if we’ll see planting of fire resistant species happening. Hugh Wilson had a wee fire at Hinewai a few years ago and will have observed what native species were more resistant.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Honora
      I am a great admirer of the work Hugh Wilson and his team have done at Hinewai.
      Hinewai was one of my earliest posts on this site, in late 2009.
      https://keithwoodford.wordpress.com/2009/12/27/hinewai/
      My initial impression is that the natives have resisted this latest fire much better than the exotics, but I have more ground truthing to do before writing in any detail abut that.
      Keith

  2. Louise says:

    Hi Keith
    I now live up in the Waikato, but I forwarded this on to to my elderly mum who lives in Ilam. Thought you might like to read her comments (below)!
    “Interesting to see it on paper in chronological order, that is how it seemed in various comments etc that I’ve read, I can’t understand anything in relation to decision making, or lack of these days, it’s not as though there has been a lack of real opportunities to sharpen wits on.
    The system sure needs a revamp, but then I’ve heard that before, no doubt Gerry will wave the big stick, and nothing will change.
    The people working their guts out on the ground had no instructions for a long time, no one in charge, helicopter pilots putting their lives at risk trying to avoid one another & power lines & heaven knows what else, poor residents not being told anything because people in glass buildings were looking out the other windows or having meetings about some fancy thing they were about to waste more money on.
    Welcome to modern day systems.”

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thanks Louise
      The coming weeks and months will indeed be a time for searching questions. We also have to acknowledge that ‘getting these things right’ can be very difficult. And we also need to make sure that we don’t assume we know the answers in advance.
      Keith

  3. Vincent Pooch says:

    Hi there Keith
    I always enjoy your insights but this is a cracker and written in a non emotive style which is in contrast to much in our media.

    Something to ponder, given you are a rural man. By February the peak milk season is well passed. So it should have been possible to easily marshal a significant fleet of milk (water) tankers eg to top up ponds such as the one at Halswell quarry. Should be on Civil Defence speed dial. My information is that there were only 2 and they had some issues them getting access.

    I cannot believe this has happened; like you I am a great lover of the Port Hills. Have made a donation to the Steve Askin Givealittle. A man losing his life in the service of us the public.

    Kind regards VP

    Vincent Pooch NZCE (Mech) CA CFInstD
    Director: Key Business Partners Limited…Corporate Advisors
    Mobile: +64 21 338 136
    Visit our website: http://www.keypartners.co.nz
    Vincent at Linked in [cid:image001.png@01D28D0E.8A9E1480]

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thanks Vincent
      To the best of my knowledge, access to water was not a major issue. The ‘duck pond’ at Halswell Quarry appeared to stand up very well, but I have not had the opportunity yet to inspect it closely as the helicopters are still using it today.

      On Thursday there were rural fire tankers heading up Kennedy’s Bush Road, but I saw no sign of them earlier. There are also good hydrants on KB Road.

      My recollection is that some Synlait tankers were used elsewhere on the hills. Each tanker plus trailer holds about 28,000 litres. Here in Canterbury, milk is still flowing at well over 80% of peak spring production so most would still have been busy carting milk. Most of the helicopters such as the Squirrel can theoretically carry about 1000 litres but I doubt if they were getting this much into the buckets. The Hueys (Iroquois) can carry about double that, but there were only – as far as I know – three of those in action.
      Keith

  4. Ev Moorhead says:

    Hi Keith. The scenario has a lot in common with Oz. A few years ago on a trip to Adelaide I was told that preventative burning of grassland beneath bluegums was not welcome by animal rights people. Thus the dry grass provided a perfect fire-connect to the gums. I noticed some landholders in our fire here had maintained a good grazing environment…short leafy grass…well… a touch of green….whereas ungrazed grassland was all burnt up. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Well done on the recording of the event Keith. Cheers Ev

  5. jbj4549 says:

    Well done Keith on writing and Annette on photographing such a valuable record of this awful event that you have shown how easily could have been a major disaster.
    I hope this is used in the assessment of what went so wrong.

  6. Julia Joseph says:

    Very interesting and informative read. Just one thing needs changing. The first sentence of paragraph 11 reads ‘The fire began about 5.30 pm on Monday 21 August.’ I think this is inaccurate.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thanks Julie.
      I must have read this at last 5 times, maybe more, and never seen the error!
      As writers, we sometimes see what we meant to write rather than what we did write.
      Keith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s