Helicopters dumping monsoon buckets on the Pigeon Valley Blaze in February. Photo: Evan Barnes.

Pigeon Valley fire six months on: Anatomy of a regional disaster

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The Pigeon Valley bush fire that rampaged across the Tasman region in February was one of the biggest blazes in New Zealand’s modern history. While fire officials undergo an operational review, hundreds of internal alerts and 111 calls have been released. Kurt Bayer reports.

The grass was so dry it was a pale shade of yellow.

So, when Joel Scott drove past and saw leaping flames, he knew it was bad.

He dumped his ute in the middle of the road and ran towards the fire. He fumbled for his phone and punched 111.

“We’re going to need a chopper real fast,” he tells the call operator at 2.14pm on February 5 this year.

He says the location, up Pigeon Valley Rd, is about 30km south of Nelson.

“Okay, all right. And what exactly is on fire?” the call taker asks.

“The bush and it’s spreading real fast.”

Scott took the first photo of the fire.

Within minutes, it had gone from “the size of a barbecue fire” to galloping up and over a hillside, into a vast forestry block.

As he talked to the contract tractor driver who’s understood to have inadvertently sparked the blaze when disc-ploughing a farmer’s field, other emergency calls flooded in.

“Look, I’m just down the valley a bit further and it looks like there’s a scrub fire heading up, heading up the hill,” says a second 111 caller at 2.19pm.

“You might want to get some choppers and everything, she’s just flying up the hillside.”

Then Scott dials 111 again, hammering home the urgency required.

“Ah, it is humming, it is absolutely humming,” a transcript of his call states.

“It’s gone from when I was here it looked like a barbecue smoke and now it’s four, five acres are already engulfed in the forest.

“You’re going to need choppers, not fire engines.”

Wakefield Volunteer Fire Brigade, at the very bottom of Pigeon Valley Rd, were alerted to a vegetation fire at 2.16pm, according to the Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) SMS incident report released under the Official Information Act legislation.

Brightwater units were roused about the same time. The first Wakefield fire truck got there at 2.26pm, followed by a Brightwater appliance at 2.34pm.

And the emergency calls kept coming – 13 in 22 minutes. There would be 27 calls in total.

Fire and Emergency NZ’s internal message log first records details of a bush fire at 2.15pm. One minute later, it notifies of “a large bush fire – spreading due to winds”.

By 2.20pm, a fire lookout operator stationed on the Barnicoat Range above nearby Richmond has directed the first helicopter to respond.

The first helicopter arrived on the scene at 2.40pm, Fenz told the Herald this week.

Two more arrived at 2.45pm. But even though it took just 26 minutes to scramble a chopper and for it to arrive, the blaze was already out of control.

“I suggest they get every helicopter they can get their hands on, now,” says a frantic Brightwater farmer calling 111 at 2.48pm.

It’s getting bigger by the second … It’s blocking out the sun now. But they need to – have they got helicopters out there?”

Within 50 minutes of the first station alert coming through, 11 fire appliances from across the region had arrived on the scene. Just over an hour later, a central fire command point was set up.

Giant grey and black clouds billowed high over otherwise blue Tasman skies, eclipsing the sun, daytime gloom. Ash rained down on to washing lines.

Cars pulled over to the side of the road, people craning for a better look.

The SMS incident report shows fire bosses seeking weather forecasts as concerns mount over the blustery, hot south-west winds fanning the inferno. The temperature was 26C and winds gusting to 65kmh.

Flames were reported to be leaping to 30m in the air as the 700m-wide fire front had travelled approximately 2km in just two and a half hours.

It was travelling north-west towards the populated Eves Valley by late afternoon.

Homeowners were also ringing in asking whether they needed to gather up their things and escape.

An evacuation centre had been set up at St John’s Anglican Church in Wakefield.

By 6.33pm, the fire was “uncontained”, with five helicopters attacking it from the air.

Residents in Eves Valley and Teapot Valley were by now being evacuated.

Ground crews pulled out of Eves Valley shortly after 8pm “and leaving it to the helicopters as it is too dangerous”.

But by about then it was getting too dark for the helicopters to safely operate.

A three-bedroom house in the upmarket Redwood Valley with panoramic north-facing views down to the Nelson bays was burned to the ground.

By the next morning, Pigeon Valley was deemed “safe”, but residents still weren’t allowed home.

Over the following days, a total of 61 units from across the country were scrambled to join the fight.

It would be the biggest ever aerial firefighting operation in New Zealand’s history.

The blaze spread across 2316 hectares, spanning 36.4km – a greater area than the devastating 2017 Port Hills fires in Christchurch.

After 22 days, Civil Defence lifted the state of emergency.

– NZ Herald