Frontline firefighters feted

by Kent Caddick

Tributes are being paid to the Selwyn fire crews who were on the front line from the first flare up in last week’s Port Hills firestorm.

Selwyn firefighters were on the front line of the disastrous Port Hills firestorm

More than 25 rural fire crews and 200 personnel, mostly volunteers, fought alongside 40 New Zealand Fire Service crews, with 45 pumps and tankers and more than 130 firefighters, to battle the blaze on the ground. 

In the air 14 helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft added their support to controlling the fire, which eventually covered upwards of 2,000 hectares and destroyed 11 homes. Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton praised the work of the local crews but said the battle to bring the fire under control was a joint effort.

“While firefighters from across Selwyn were among those to first respond, this was very much a collaborative effort with firefighters and emergency services from Christchurch and the New Zealand Defence Force all working well together.

“Civil Defence is a well-oiled machine with a massive amount of people and technology at its disposal. As well as the fire crews there was a huge number of people in support roles.”

Mayor Broughton said for Selwyn civil defence it was their first big event since the earthquakes.

Dampening down of the fire ground to prevent further outbreaks could take several weeks to complete

“The earthquakes were in some ways a bit of a wake-up call to ensure we had the systems in place to deal with events of this kind.” On Monday Mayor Broughton and other Selwyn emergency services personnel were among those who attended the funeral service for helicopter pilot David Askin who was killed when his helicopter crashed on day two of the fire.

The night sky was lit up by the fire which eventually covered more than 2,000ha

Selwyn’s Principal Rural Fire Officer Douglas Marshall said, in a joint statement with New Zealand Fire Service Region Commander Steve Turek, that the Port Hills fire was one of the most complex in recent years.

“It has required firefighting on a number of fronts, requiring urban, rural and aerial tactics. All firefighters have worked very hard in tough conditions. We are very proud of the commitment and huge effort put in by firefighters, community volunteers and the many other agencies supporting the response.” PRFO Marshall said all large fires have an operational review undertaken after the fire has been fully extinguished.

The Selwyn District Council chambers acted as the command centre for battling the Port Hills blaze

“The purpose of that review is to evaluate the response and identify any opportunities for further improvement.

For now, our focus is on putting out the fires.” Fire crews could be in the fire zone for up to a further five weeks depending on weather conditions to ensure the fire is fully extinguished.

Selwyn Deputy Mayor Malcolm Lyall (back left) and SDC CEO David Ward (back right) support mayors Sam Broughton and Lianne Dalziel during a media briefing

In conjunction with New Zealand Fire Service investigators, police are investigating the cause of the two fires in the Port Hills.

Detective Inspector Greg Murton said initial enquiries indicate the Summit Road fire was reported approximately 90 minutes after the Early Valley Road fire was reported. The two separate blazes eventually merged into one large fire.

“While there has been speculation about the cause of the two fires, no definitive cause for either fire has been established at this time,” DI Murton said.

“A thorough investigation of the cause of both fires is expected to take some weeks and police will not speculate on the cause of the fires until the investigation is completed.”

Meanwhile, fire investigators are calling for any early footage of the Port Hills fires.

                          Around 15 helicopters were used to help contain the fire

Fire investigator Ken Legat said they’re calling for any witnesses who have taken photos or videos of either fires on the Port Hills when they first started.

Fire investigators want any footage or photos taken from the Halswell or Prebbleton area pointing towards Early Valley Road, or anything from the Marley Hill side of the road.

A fundraising page to help support the family of Mr Askin, a decorated war hero, has been set up, and those wanting to support the family can make donations at givealittle.co.nz/cause/onegreatman.