From the perspective of a Wakefield resident, I can say the Pigeon Valley Fire has been an emotional roller coaster. For those residents of the various valleys most affected one can only begin to imagine the toll that the past week or so has had. While I was evacuated for a few nights the stress was nothing compared to those who have lived (and as I write this, some who continue to live) with the extended uncertainty of the safety of their homes, and the wellbeing of their animals while they remain outside the cordon.
When I first saw the smoke rising up the valley after hearing the sirens, I knew there would be trouble. The vegetation all around was tinder dry and the wind was blowing a stiff southerly. It became apparent very quickly that my initial fears were well founded as the horizon grew black with the thick smoke of a fire out of control.
But from this point the story has two sides. This post will address the experience of working with the various teams and people on the ground. I believe a future post needs to address the experience of working with those removed from the front lines.
When Civil Defence mobilized the Wakefield Centre for evacuated and affected parties, I headed up the street to join the team. This became “home” for the next few days.
From day one there was a steady stream of people coming through offering support for those affected. There were donations of food and supplies, and people offering a place to stay, and homes for animals. The local 4 Square
Initially, I got to work alongside Civil Defence staff, and later with Red Cross staff, Police, and the Community Patrol. It was great to see these agencies in action and meet people that had flown and driven in from all around the country to join the local efforts. My role was more one of moral support and a local face to greet people as they came to the centre – and provide some local knowledge when required to the out-of-town staff running the centre. Other locals also helped man the door and, more importantly, the kitchen.
During the quiet moments between evacuations, alarms, and the war-zone like aerial assault noise, I got to hear some interesting personal stories from the people behind the uniforms. Stories of personal struggle and yet an amazing heart to keep serving others. Stories of just joined to stories of long service and other emergencies they had been involved in, such as the Christchurch fire and earthquakes.
Once the Wakefield Civil Defence centre was shut down and operations moved to Saxton Field, I declined the offer to join the team in Richmond and instead went home to prepare to evacuate. I had already told my family to self-evacuate the previous night, which they did that morning (enabling me to focus on helping others without worrying about them).
When you walk into your house with the knowledge that you have only a limited amount of time to pack up and leave it is a daunting prospect as you look at all your “stuff.” What do you take? What is really that important in the greater scheme of things? Do you just pack some clothes and hope the Fire boys and girls are going to stop the monster before it gets to you?
Electing to mostly do the later I headed off in my caravan to try and get some sorely needed sleep. As I drove out I could see other caravans being dragged out from behind houses for the first time in a long time, people loading up trailers and vehicles, and lots of houses already with big crosses painted on showing they had already been cleared. The army and air force were already setting up patrols and cordons with the police which provided some comfort to know that if the fire stayed away no one else would be cleaning out houses left evacuated.
The next day, I got to experience more of the generosity
That night I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to offer assistance to a crew going in to create the huge fire breaks that appeared within days. Again, these operators worked through the night with barely a pause to give the firefighters a fighting chance to head the fire off despite predicted strong winds (that
Monday, I was at a lose end whilst still homeless when I bumped into Marty Price of the Community Patrol (he was wearing his Search and Rescue hat at the time) who suggested I should help the Community Patrol members at the Richmond A&P Show grounds. How could I refuse?
The next few days were then spent helping to manage traffic flows at the show grounds. Thank you to the many who obeyed instructions without the verbal abuse that a few felt the need to express (I know which taxi service I won’t be using, for example).
Again, it was an amazing experience to see the generosity of locals showing up with a few leaves for the rabbits to trucks (and horse floats) rolling in from Blenheim, Murchison, and Canterbury loaded with hay and supplies. There were regular volunteers showing up to assist the amazing team from HUHA from dog walkers to the “poo crew.” There were some very tired looking vets and vet helpers rotating through too (I even got to meet Summer). Federated farmers and farmer support teams also were doing a great job organising the larger animal transfers and feeding assistance, along with emotional health help.
Although traffic duty seemed a little unglamorous compared to those who were dealing with the evacuated animals, there was a lot of praise from the people of those organisations for the Community Patrol (teams from Richmond assisted by teams from Motueka) that I was working along side. Once the Community Patrol (especially one member who would take no credit) arrived and set up a traffic management plan, food drop points, and only let those who needed to be on site through the gates it enabled the other organisations to focus on doing what they do best – dealing with animals. Things were then able to run a lot smoother.
So, from this perspective, it was an amazing experience to be part of. To see how many selfless people there are in our community and around the country who volunteer countless hours to assist others in times of need.
However, even as the air currently still hums with the sound of aerial firefighters and no doubt ground crews swelter away in the heat somewhere over the ridge, the media has dissipated, and over the coming weeks the fire will (hopefully) get pushed to the back of our minds. But, the groups that stepped up over this time will continue on working away in the background and most of them are struggling for members and support.
So, before you forget how it felt to be a part of something bigger than yourself, I would encourage you to sign up to one of the organisations that you saw in action over the past week or so. Obviously, we are not all cut out to be firefighters (but if you are, give your local station a call and see if they need extra volunteers) but there are many other roles, and even if you can’t spare a little time every month then perhaps you can become a regular financial supporter.
For me, I think I will look at joining the Richmond Community Patrol – expect a call
Dean McNamara in the media to do with the fire.