One year on from Port Hills fires, residents still recovering

Vikki and Doug Pflaum inspect their property, one year on from the fires. - Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

Today marks one year since Christchurch's devastating Port Hills Fires began.

Two separate fires, several kilometres apart, started on 13 February - the first on Early Valley Road and the second on Marley's Hill. They merged into one large blaze that tore through nearly 2000ha of land.

Helicopter pilot and decorated soldier Steve Askin was killed when his helicopter crashed as he was fighting the blaze.

Nine homes were destroyed, five more were damaged and thousands of people were forced to evacuate their properties.

It was 66 days before the fire was fully extinguished.

Vikki and Doug Pflaum's Worsleys Road house in the Port Hills was burnt down to its concrete foundations.

Mrs Pflaum said she and her husband Doug only had 20 minutes to grab what they could - photos, Plunket books, crucial business files - before police rushed them out of the house.

She said the only thing that withstood the fire was the pegs on the clothesline - everything else was lost.

"It's later on you think, 'oh I wished I had got that', or 'I should have grabbed that'," she said.

"It's material stuff but it is still part of who we were and part of our family," she said.

Police said although the most likely cause of the fires according to specialist fire investigators was that they were deliberately lit, there was no evidence to conclusively show that was the case.

They said the police investigation into the cause of the fires therefore remained open.

Mrs Pflaum said it would be good if someone was answerable to the fires - but she was moving forward with her life.

They were working on plans to rebuild their home and hoped to return to the area in the next couple of years.

On Early Valley Road, where the first of the two fires started, residents are also still picking up the pieces.

Ginny and Ross Langmure's home was saved, but the land on their 40 hectare lifestyle block was badly damaged - with three kilometres of fences, several sheds and hundreds of native plants lost.

Mrs Langmure said the house had finally stopped smelling of smoke, but there was still lots to fix on the farm.

"At the begining we told ourselves it'll take three years to recover from this, and I'm glad we said that and not one year because we definitely have lots left to do."

Lessons learnt

An independent review of the emergency response to the fires found a lot of things were done well, but it also identified communication breakdowns with affected residents and a lack of cohesion between the urban and rural fire authorities, who were fighting the fire together.

Fire and Emergency closed their investigation into the cause of the fires last month, saying although they believed both fires were deliberately lit there was a lack of evidence.

The Christchurch City Councillor for the Cashmere Ward, in the Port Hills, Tim Scandrett, believed lessons had been learnt.

Problems around maintaining fire breaks, and emergency access roads, had been brought up and discussed Mr Scandrett said.

The fire had affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways and it was important to look at how things could be done in the future.

Insurer IAG is going to court on behalf of its customers whose homes were damaged in the two fires.

It alleges the Early Valley Road fire was started by a failure of Orion's electricity equipment and the Marleys Hill blaze was spread by the Christchurch Adventure Park's chairlift.

A conference between the parties is expected to be held at the High Court in Christchurch in May.


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