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Issue No. 411 March 2017

Fire in the hills

Photo: Constable Kurt Davison, Canterbury District

With fire ravaging Canterbury’s Port Hills, Police staff were in the thick of things as they worked to keep people safe.

“Our staff had to deal with a lot of emotion and fear and did a stunning, stunning job,” says Canterbury District Commander Superintendent John Price.

“I’ve had many emails and comments of praise for the work police did. I’m very proud of our team working under extreme pressure and in such a dangerous environment.”

The fire began on Monday 13 February in the west of the hills, followed 90 minutes later by reports of another a short distance away. On Tuesday helicopter pilot Steve Askin was killed when his aircraft crashed on fire-fighting duty.

The fires joined up on Wednesday 15 February. A state of emergency was declared as the wind direction increased the threat to areas of Christchurch city - and thousands of lives.

In the largest fire to encroach on a New Zealand metropolitan area, more than 2000 hectares of land burned, along with 11 homes. Thousands of people were evacuated, including at least five members of Police staff; those from the worst-affected Worsleys Road area were allowed home on 22 February.

At the fire’s height, around 50 Police staff per shift were dedicated to fire-related duties, with the local strength supplemented by 30 reinforcements from Tasman and Auckland. Police also deployed 50 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) staff per shift, to work alongside Police staff with a focus on cordons and reassurance.

There was also business as usual, and other demands in a week which involved VIP attendance at the earthquake memorial unveiling, a Bruce Springsteen concert and test cricket.

John says Police’s task was to protect life and property - “in that order”. “Police achieved our aim with no members of the public or own team being harmed by the fire,” says John.

The response had three phases – evacuation; resourcing cordons to keep people away and allow firefighters to work; and providing reassurance. A fourth phase – investigation – is ongoing.

Police staff faced risky situations but did not place themselves in unnecessary danger, says Superintendent John Price.

“Once you evacuate people they want to know their properties are secure and that’s where reassurance comes in. A lot of people were concerned but having the police as guardians of their property helped reassure them.”

There were no verified reports of thefts from empty properties. People “who might see it as an opportunity” were monitored.

Police were partners – with rural and national fire services and NZDF - in an operation led at first by rural fire authorities, then by Civil Defence.

Police attended emergency operations centres at Selwyn and Christchurch council HQs. The mobile police base became a forward command centre and activity was coordinated from the special operations room at Christchurch Central, supported by the National Command and Coordination Centre (NCCC).

John says the fire attained ‘atom-bomb heat’, the equivalent of 1000 one-bar electric heaters per square metre. With flames moving at frightening speed, he says, there were fears it could get worse.

“If the winds had turned the wrong way on Wednesday and Thursday we would have faced evacuation of a much larger population. Eleven homes were lost but the potential was for hundreds - if not thousands - of houses to have burnt.”

John says police were “front and centre” in risky situations, with risks including a fire tornado, rock falls, falling trees and unseen cavities caused by fire damage.

“We had done our risk assessments. The Fire Service was able to ensure our staff were not doing anything that would endanger them greatly.

“The nature and scale of this fire meant there was bound to be an element of risk. But that’s when we expect our people to step up, mitigating the risk using TENR as in any operational context.”

The stress of the emergency brought an apparent blip in family harm incidents. “Everyone saw their city under threat again. You might not actually be threatened but you could see what was happening - the whole of the Port Hills seemed to be ablaze, with flames 40 metres high.”

John says such events have a crucial bearing on trust and confidence in Police – among partner agencies, the Government and Police staff as well as the public.

“We’ve got some amazing people. If you want to look for silver linings, we’re becoming quite skilled at dealing with disasters.

“If you invest in good partnerships with your emergency services colleagues and territorial local authorities, it makes it much easier when these things happen.”

Next page: Double view of disaster

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