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Wairarapa Red Cross helping Nelson fight fire

Wairarapa Red Cross DWST volunteers in Nelson, Julie Bradbury, left, Fiona Flis, Brian Veitch, police Inspector Dexter Traill, from Masterton, and Hayley Gastmeier. PHOTO/JO ANSON

A massive forest fire that broke out in Nelson on February 5 continues to burn, with people from all over New Zealand contributing to the emergency response. Wairarapa’s Red Cross disaster welfare and support team [DWST] spent a week on the scene. Red Cross volunteer and Times-Age journalist HAYLEY GASTMEIER reports.

The blaze, as seen from Teapot Valley Christian Camp. PHOTO/DARREN BRYCE


Eighteen days, hundreds of firefighters, dozens of helicopters and monsoon buckets, thousands of litres of water – and the Nelson Tasman fire that is thought to have sparked from a piece of machinery is still not out.

Emergency services have been working tirelessly to contain the blaze, which as of Thursday had a perimeter of 35.4 kilometres and had devoured 2343 hectares of land.

My first deployment as a Red Cross DWST volunteer was to one of the biggest fires in New Zealand history and the largest aerial firefight on record.

Thousands of residents had been evacuated from their homes in Redwood Valley, Teapot Valley, Eves Valley, Pigeon Valley, and the town of Wakefield.

The uncertain nature of the fire meant emotions were running high.

Some residents had not been home in days and were living in limbo, unsure whether they would even have a home to return to.

Others had lost animals and farmland or had been hit hard financially, with a ban on machinery forcing forestry contactors off the job.

Firefighters have been working 24/7 to douse the fire and hotspots. PHOTO/FIONA FLIS

Myself, along with Wairarapa DWST team leader Fiona Flis and members Brian Veitch and Julie Bradbury arrived in Nelson on Friday, February 15.

By this time, the fire appeared to be out on the smouldering smoky surface but was now burning deep underground, meaning many properties were still at risk.

Our job was to provide psychological first aid [initial emotional and practical support] to the people affected.

Along with police, Civil Defence, and military personnel, Red Cross volunteers manned the cordons into at-risk areas, offering support to residents, and assisting people visiting the Civil Defence Centre.

A resident living near ground zero on Pigeon Valley Rd watched as the fire spread rapidly through the pine trees which were “crackling like rice bubbles”.

Others were praising firefighters for saving their houses, which they described as being surrounded by a thin “green oasis” or “halo” while just metres away their gardens were burnt to a crisp.

Nelson Constable Darren Bryce with Hayley Gastmeier. PHOTO/FIONA FLIS

My uncle, Nelson police Constable Darren Bryce lives in Brightwater, near the Teapot Valley cordon.

Returning home from a family trip to the river, he spotted smoke and knew his community was under threat.

“The people affected and evacuated from the valleys were colleagues, friends and neighbours, and for me it was a privilege to be able to assist them.”

He said the priorities in the early stages of the fire were clear.

“It was all about urgency – urgency to get people to safety.”

Bryce said the blaze had the potential to spread quickly and the risk it posed was unknown.

“People were uncertain of the direction it would take and damage that the fire was likely to do.

“Once evacuated, it was the worry the next morning whether their properties and houses would still be there.”

Despite the size of the blaze, to date just one dwelling and one outhouse has been claimed – a testament to the hardworking firefighters.

“I really expected when daylight came that first morning that there would be dozens of houses destroyed – just from seeing the intensity and glow of the fire in the night sky prior to dawn,” Bryce said.

He said wind fanned significant flare-ups at night which were left to their own devices, as helicopters were unable to fly during hours of darkness.

It was an uncertain time, he said, adding that firefighters had described the spot fires [caused from blowing embers] covering the valleys as like Armageddon.

Brian Veitch making friends on the cordon. PHOTO/FIONA FLISS

At a public meeting for affected residents last week, emergency leaders said 950 people had been involved in the official response to the fire so far.

On top of this, hundreds of individuals, community groups and businesses nationwide had stepped up to help.

When Wellington-based HUHA [Helping You Helping Animals] founder Carolyn Press-McKenzie heard about the blaze, the welfare of Nelson animals became her priority.

She and other HUHA volunteers travelled south to set up an animal welfare shelter at Nelson A&P showgrounds.

Around 950 animals – including goats, sheep, cats, dogs, piglets, and a turtle – have been taken under HUHA’s wing and cared for during the duration of the blaze.

The NZ Army Band put on a concert to raise funds for the mayoral disaster relief fund, and a community-led welfare hub was set up at Saxton Suburb Clubrooms where residents could pick up donated groceries.

Wairarapa DWST team leader, Fiona Flis, centre. PHOTO/BRIAN VEITCH

Hub volunteer Andrea Warn said the initiative had started with a small group of people catering to feed firefighters in the early days of the emergency.

The army then stepped in to cater for the emergency responders, but word had spread of the community hub and goodwill packages received from all over the country meant there was an endless supply of food parcels for affected families.

“Hundreds of people a day are coming through the doors,” she said.

Warn said the response and generous donations from big corporations and small businesses [including from Clareville Bakery] had been humbling.

While the worst appears to be over and residents are now allowed back home, it is not yet time to relax.

Fire Emergency New Zealand [FENZ] warns of the ongoing danger of flare-ups with drought conditions and wind.

Julie Bradbury after an information session at Wakefield School. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

FENZ has been working 24/7 to establish a boundary around the fire’s perimeter by digging down 2m and dousing roots of every individual tree.

Principal Rural Fire Officer Ian Reade told a community meeting that the fire was “burning really deep” underground and it would be “a long hard slog to get it out properly”.

All it would take would be “a spark” and it could reignite.

Wairarapa DWST members said it was awesome to see how the country had banded together to support the Nelson Tasman community.

Random goodwill messages were spotted around Nelson. PHOTO/JULIE BRADBURY

Signs have been erected on the road sides in Nelson, thanking all those helping with the fire effort.

Getting a pat on the back and a “thank you” from a total stranger was not uncommon while wearing our bright red overalls.

Veitch, a teacher at Wairarapa College, said many friendly gestures made it clear the community appreciated the Red Cross presence, and efforts put in by emergency services.

Bradbury said the co-operation between agencies was impressive, considering “the size of the problem and the risks they had to weigh up”.

Before we departed Nelson on Thursday afternoon, kaumatua Barney Thomas thanked the DWST team for its assistance with a karakia.

He said the seriousness of the fire aside, the fact there had been no loss of human life was something to celebrate.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Red Cross can find details online at https://www.redcross.org.nz/get-involved/volunteer-opportunities

Multiple agencies joined forces to help out. PHOTO/BRIAN VEITCH

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