Nelson fires: the triumphs and trials

2019-02-08 06:46:10

As he fought to dampen down the smouldering mess where the Pigeon Valley fire started, firefighter Daniel Burrell fretted about his threatened home over the ridge. It wasn't until he stood with a fire truck on his own lawn hours later, sucking water from his swimming pool, that he knew it was safe.

"I was worried until I got here. Once I could get here, I could protect it."

Burrell, 44, left his home in Redwood Valley on Tuesday afternoon, knowing he was leaving his family in the likely line of the fire. They'd seen the plume of smoke rising over the ridge above, when the fire took hold about 2pm – apparently sparked by a ploughing contractor in Pigeon Valley, out of Wakefield, a rural village of 3000 half an hour inland from Nelson.

He and wife Sarah hopped on the four-wheeler to investigate. It was still three valleys away – but 24 years as a firefighter meant Burrell saw not just the region's distinctive rolling terrain, but three valleys of ready-burn forest, pre-dried by months with barely a drop of rain. He saw the hillsides that quicken fire's pace, doubling its speed for every 10 degrees of incline.

Burrell was due on shift that night, but was called in early. He left the house, his wife and two children at 3pm. He didn't see them again until 11am the next morning.

Twelve-year-old Caleb couldn't see much from the couch. He was hobbling around on crutches after breaking his leg at the Reefton skate park that weekend, after a motocross event. Sarah gently suggested they should pack some precious things in case they needed to evacuate. Caleb took his motocross trophies, motorbike and phone. Nine-year-old Mckenzie dissolved into tears.

"I was a bit scared for Dad," she says. "I was scared that the fire would catch him."

At 5.30pm police warned them to be ready to move. On the other side, Pigeon Valley was closed, Eves Valley was being evacuated and others were warned to prepare. The fire was building, flying up the pine-clad hills. The speed and intensity was too much for any human to fight, fire incident controller John Sutton later said.

After two hours of pacing between the lounge and her vege garden vantage point, Sarah got a call from Daniel from the paddock at the bottom of the valley, which became the fire command centre. "Get out," he said. "GTFO," Caleb corrects.

Smoke was building on the ridge and Sarah could see the stand of trees 200 metres up the hill thinning before her eyes. The speed of it, the way the wind was blowing, the baked dry grass that had seen no rain since Christmas – she didn't expect to see the house again.

"I was terribly upset. I stood at the front door and had a moment and bawled  my eyes out. I had to be dragged away."

They went to stay with motocross friends but she got no sleep. At 2am she read that two Redwood Valley homes had been lost. She threw up in the bathroom. The information turned out to be wrong.


Daniel started at the sawmill, mopping up where the fire had flashed through. It was too dark for helicopters and the fire was so intense it was too dangerous to attack from the ground. From the right angle, on the Richmond side, you could see the fierce amber tongues licking the ridgelines. But then there was a window of opportunity and they moved him to Redwood Valley.

"About two o'clock in the morning the wind died down. At that point it was getting really close to the houses ... We thought the house on the top had gone."

They moved in, spraying foam and laying fire blankets to try to save the homes.

"You're not focusing on putting the fire out, you're just giving it a quick wetdown that is going to stop it from moving."

Then the wind changed, sending the flames towards his own home. The fire folded back on itself, returning towards Pigeon Valley and Wakefield. And so he ended up on the lawn, fire hose in hand.

At 4.30am he sent Sarah a text.

"All I got was a photo of him with his fire hat on," Sarah says. "I could see the corner of my house and the fire truck and I cried and cried and cried. I knew then that the house was still standing."

The house was safe, but the fire was far from done. It swelled like a cancerous growth. At 5.45pm on Tuesday it covered 120 hectares. By 6am Wednesday morning the perimeter stretched to 20km, swallowing 1870 hectares, including several sheds, a dozen sheep and one home. Over 100 homes had been emptied of their worried occupants.

With the wind change had come more evacuations. The Sunset Valley residents on the Motueka side survived their nervous night to wake to a reprieve, but the Pigeon Valley residents who thought they'd escaped were suddenly back in the firing line.

Pigeon Valley resident Max Barker was evacuated at 10am, around the time a state of emergency was called. The fire was vicious. He'd never seen anything like it in 19 years and never wants to again. But his house was "safe as a church".

The declaration of a state of emergency brought extra resources, bringing the number of firefighters to more than 100. The sky buzzed with more than a dozen helicopters towing monsoon buckets, performing a complex aerial ballet of fly-and-fill. In Pigeon Valley they dipped into the golf course dam. In Redwood Valley the heat had melted pipes, knocking out the water supply scheme, so they relied on swimming pools like the Burrells', refilled from tankers.

On Wednesday afternoon, an acrid blanket of smoke shrouded Wakefield, but the Civil Defence Centre set up in the Anglican church was quiet. Most evacuees had found friends or motels to stay in. The local Four Square donated mountains of food. People donated beds, time and cupcakes.

At the Wakefield Hotel, cinder-stained firefighters finished their shift with a round of bourbons. Up the road at the Pigeon Valley Rd cordon, mates were having a Double Brown fire party, celebrating saving the dogs and jet ski from a friend's place, who lived up the valley but was away at sea.

A second fire at popular picnic spot Rabbit Island drew four ground crews and two helicopters. That was a 10ha distraction they really didn't need, Civil Defence recovery manager Adrian Humphries later said. They suspect it was deliberately lit.

About 7pm the Wakefield Rest Home was evacuated as a precaution – some to other rest homes, some to family, some to the Civil Defence centre up the road. They told the residents at dinner. One chewed, vacant-eyed, on a banana, another was preoccupied with a black poodle. "What are we all doing?" the helper asked gently. "We're just being safe."


Thursday dawned cool and calm, but agitation cut the air.

At 9am, down the road from the command point, in a paddock next to the Appleby Fire Station, about 400 evacuees from 182 houses gathered in the already-baking sun. They brought dogs with nowhere to go, and worries about the animals left behind.

Some despaired at the lack of information. Deer farmer Graeme Sutton despaired at the lack of a plan to get farmers in to care for their stock. He'd bluffed his way in on Wednesday to feed and water the 80 deer and 20 cattle on his Redwood Valley property, but things were getting dire.

"They need to have a plan to get in quickly. you just can't sit around for a day and decide we can go back. A cow drinks about 70l a day. You have to keep up with it. If they don't get water in this heat they will be dead within a couple of days."

Sutton did get in later that day, but others weren't so lucky.

Judi and Dan Curry have six jersey cows, 15 goats, 60 ducks ("they had a good year!") and chooks at their evacuated Redwood Valley lifestyle block. Their stressed dogs Chance and Finn panted in the back of the car. The Currys, though, seemed remarkably relaxed for a couple who had lost their stockyard and the shed containing their tractor and farm equipment. That's how close the fire got to their house.

Their main worry was the animals. They were allowed in for an hour on Wednesday morning. The power was out so they couldn't pump water. Instead, they had to fill buckets from a gravity-fed trickle and lug them to the troughs. They didn't have time to give the cows even 24 hours worth of water.

"It's not fun but it could be so much worse," Judi said.

Later that day, after an hour of unsuccessful begging to be let through the cordon, the Currys were less relaxed. "Supposedly tomorrow," Judi said. "But the situation will be getting critical by then."

Back at the community meeting, applause greeted the news the fire was not getting bigger.

"Yesterday was a great day," John Sutton told the crowd. But Friday's forecast was looking bad for firefighting – "wind is our enemy".

"It is a huge day for us," Sutton said. "We have got to make some ground today and try and be better prepared for what is probably going to hit us tomorrow."

But fire doesn't always follow instructions. Trouble hit earlier than expected.


From the Burrells' house on Thursday afternoon you could see how close the fire came. The black scar split the valley, stopping some 50m away. Above the house, the motocross track the neighbours aren't wild about acted as a welcome firebreak. And you could see it wasn't over yet. Smoke kept billowing and building around the trees Sarah had seen thinning first time around. Fixed-wing planes dropped red bombs of fire retardant to hold the perimeter.

About 6pm, just when people were feeling optimistic, the fire found unburnt vegetation at Teapot Valley and a high plume of black filled the air. More stressed homeowners were forced to pack and leave.

About 10pm the phones of 3000 Wakefield residents chimed with emergency alerts, warning them to damp down their houses and prepare to evacuate. The fire front's orange glow was bright on the ridge. Burnt pine needles carried onto village lawns, highlighting the threat from live embers. Police and the Defence were on standby to help.

Overnight, the fire grew another 200ha. Ground crews fought desperately to cut firebreaks in front of the flames. There was no tomorrow for the Currys - they still weren't allowed back to water their animals. "We'll have stock when we return, but it may not be livestock," Judi said.

At 1pm the part of Wakefield closest to Pigeon Valley was evacuated, in case the wind turned. Others chose to leave, moving out with housebuses, trailers and horsefloats in tow, bringing the total evacuees to around 1200.

Then another fire broke out, close to central Nelson, again drawing resources away from the main blaze.

Whatever happens, it will be a long slog from here, says a man who knows – regional fire boss Richard McNamara, who was incident commander for the devastating 2017 Port Hills fires, which claimed nine houses and one life.

"These kinds of fires are extremely arduous. Once the initial adrenaline rush is over – the containment and critical phase – that fire could be 50 days worth of just sheer hard grunt and work ... It does take a toll."

And while words like "extreme" and "unprecedented" have been the lingo of this fire, blazes of this scale will "unquestionably" become more prevalent with climate change, McNamara says.

Fire scientist Grant Pearce says this year's extraordinary fire season of 17 high to extreme fire risk days could become the new normal for the Nelson region, which usually has about half that. A bad season could become 20-25 days. And around the country fire risk could double or triple, with present low-risk areas such as Manawatū and Whanganui potentially the worst affected.

McNamara and Pearce say homeowners need to create "defensible space" around their properties, and councils need to think more about where – and how – they build to reduce fire risk.

Climate scientist Jim Renwick says there's only one real prevention plan.

"The thing to do about it is to reduce emissions. That's the only thing that is going to fix this problem or stop it getting worse."

Until the Pigeon Valley fire is fully under control, the only certainty is uncertainty. And only then will Burrell and hundreds of exhausted firefighters, helicopter pilots, tanker drivers, digger drivers, civil defence staff, police, military and volunteers settle into an uninterrupted sleep.

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