The effects of the fire continue to bite into the community as some residents still have homes and livelihoods behind the cordons and the tragic news of a helicopter lost comes through. But the tentacles of the fire have a far greater reach into the local community than first meets the eye. Forestry contractors, support businesses to the forestry, mills, the MDF plant, trucking companies and all the other businesses that will be affected once these people stop spending.
Therefore, it is important to look at the events that transpired to see if lessons can be learned for future events. I am not going to weigh in on who is to blame for the fire, or did we respond appropriately when the call first came in, and are forests being managed correctly, that is for insurance companies and their lawyers to sort out. Hopefully, there will be some lessons that we can put into best-practice manuals moving forward.
I would like to describe what I saw as some of the communication break downs that I personally experienced as it is unlikely that I will be consulted in any debrief between the various agencies (for reasons you will discover shortly).
From my perspective the story began with the local fire sirens going off and my noticing smoke a short time later. As I watched the rapid escalation of the smoke in the distance it became apparent very quickly that this was going to be a problem. Within a couple of hours it appeared that the outcome was going to be ominous for people surrounding the forest.
That is when I decided to call the Civil Defence number as the Wakefield Community Council appointed Civil Defence Liaison Officer and ask if we should be opening the Wakefield CD Centre. I was told that they knew nothing of the situation at that point, and I will be called if needed.
You can imagine my surprise when I read on social media a couple of hours later that the Wakefield CD Centre had been opened for evacuees from the fire and I still had not received a call as the local liaison officer.
After joining the team at the local Civil Defence Centre for a couple of hours I could see that communications were patchy at best between the difference agencies and those on the ground in Wakefield. But official communication with the public was entirely lacking. At this point I tried to contact staff at the Council to see what our response to the situation was.
Another surprise came back when I was told by a senior staff member who normally takes the lead on Civil Defence matters that there was no Civil Defence response to the fire. I pointed out that I was in an evacuation centre with a number of CD staff running around so it looked to me like it was an official CD response. He made a phone call and then called me back to confirm that CD staff had been activated but council was not involved.
It was obvious that I was not getting any help from the Council at that point. We continued to man the CD centre in a relative communication vacuum.
Around 8pm, I believe it was, the Mayor breezed in dressed for the Bahamas. After a quick tour inside he came back out to where I was standing in front of the door and asked how it was going. I said “actually, we are having problems with a lack of communication.” His response was that communications were going really well and Civil Defence was managing everything swimmingly well (paraphrased). I tried to suggest that here on the frontline that wasn’t the case. Our Mayor’s response was to mutter something about not being prepared to get into that and he turned and walked away.
Day two of the fire and I heard nothing from the Council. We continued to have issues resulting from no clear communication channels especially with the public. People were bringing food to the Centre. Some staff were turning away food that wasn’t prepared in a commercial kitchen. I get we don’t want to poison our crews, but if home baking is not acceptable then someone should have communicated that. Also, there was only a standard fridge freezer at the church so large donations of frozen goods and unprepared food were also not gifts that we could easily handle at that location.
This is why I thought that the Council should have been stepping up and taking control of the information going out into the community. But that is apparently not what we do, and it turns out contacting the local councillor for an “on the ground update” is also not what we do.
I am not suggesting that we as a Council or as Councillors should be stepping in to manage the Civil Defence or Emergency Response communications. But there is a lot of stuff outside of the emergency situation that we could do. Such as keep the public/ratepayers informed of how they can help when so many want to, rather than leave it to sometimes partly informed social media.
For example, if anyone at the Wakefield CD centre knew when houses from the various valleys were being evacuated, they kept the information to themselves because nobody that I talked to seemed to know. This made it hard to ensure that local support personnel were prepared to manage the flow of traffic and have catering ready for the kitchen.
Another example of how local knowledge could help was the decision to open the A&P show grounds as an evacuation centre for animals. It is an excellent facility and the A&P association should be commended for their efforts in preserving it for generations to come.
However, when Colin Gibbs put his Federated Farmers hat on and left the Wakefield CD Centre to check on how things were going at the show grounds, he discovered that there were no plans in place to handle the animals coming in. There were no electronic readers available to accept any cattle as per MPI requirements for example. No water/feed or plan to segregate stock. An example of people making a call without understanding the support logistics required on the ground, and apparently not knowing who to contact to establish them.
As a local Councillor, when the decision was made to evacuate Wakefield and close SH6 if I had been informed I would have suggested that we should contact the Tapawera Community Council as I am sure their business community would have welcomed a heads up that they are about to become the only road out of the Nelson region after Wakefield and Nelson North routes were both closed to fire. The trucking community would also have appreciated an advanced notice as well I am sure.
Despite the fact that the media were able to contact me for on-the-ground updates, the only official calls I received were after I made my frustrations clear at a brief Council meeting on
I did get a text from the Mayor on the Thursday night, after the CD alarms were triggered on everyone’s phone, to tell me that Wakefield was put on evacuation alert. But no one thought to let me know that all of Wakefield was going to be evacuated, I had to find that out from one of the council staff in a random interview about the fire. An interview that I happened across by chance on social media during a brief timeout I took for a
Experiences like this make you realise how redundant the role of Councillor actually is (especially if the Mayor doesn’t like you). None of our local knowledge or contacts
I have heard of other instances where communications were not ideal and questionable decisions were made, but these were some of those that I experienced first-hand. It would not worry me so much if I thought that we would learn from this experience and be better prepared in the future, but I question that this will happen. I suspect debriefs will either be around the head table where the Mayor informed me that communication was going so well, or it will come down in a siloed approach where each agency will report back what a stellar job they did.
The reason I suspect that these debriefs will be less than effective is because we have had large fires such as the Port Hills fire in our recent past and it doesn’t appear that we have made a great deal of improvement in the way they are handled. One conversation with a Police Officer around communication went something like me saying we appear to have communication issues and her responding that there always are in these situations.
Although I cannot bring about communication reform across all the agencies I would certainly like to think I can get the Council to step up their game. But I suspect a change of Mayor will be required to make even that happen as the current one doesn’t think there