Helicopters dumping monsoon buckets on the Pigeon Valley Fire in February 2019. Photo: Barry Whitnall.

Pigeon Valley fire: One year on


It was a hot, dry, cloudless day on February 5, 2019. There hadn’t been rain in weeks in the Nelson region, and temperatures were soaring above record levels.

On that Tuesday it was 28 degrees. A tractor was discing a tinderdry, stony paddock of tall grass, with warm conditions, wind and extreme fire danger.

It was the perfect storm, and one spark was all it took to ignite the paddock.

Strong winds meant that the fire spread rapidly, and within weeks it had ripped through 2300 hectares, destroyed a home, fences, pastures and cause 2500 to evacuate their homes.

It was the largest wildfire in New Zealand in nearly 70 years.

At 2.16pm Wakefield volunteer fire brigade were alerted to the blaze, with fire trucks arriving within 10 minutes.

Despite only taking half an hour for a chopper to arrive, the fire was out of control.

Within two hours it had travelled nearly 7km. By 6.30pm that night, nearby residents were already being evacuated.

In the coming days, a total of 61 chopper units from around the country turned up to join the firefighting effort.

A Civil Defence State of Emergency was declared on February 6, the day after the Pigeon Valley fire started.

The fire burned for three weeks, ripping through thousands of hectares of land in Pigeon Valley and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

Tasman Mayor Tim King says the fire was a hugely challenging time for the region, especially for those who were evacuated from their homes.

“A fire on this scale, on top of the drought conditions at the time could have felt overwhelming but my lasting memory was the huge response from our community. It was an incredible effort all round and it made me feel proud of the place that I live and the people I share it with.”

The fire spread over 2316 hectares, spanning 36.4km, an even greater area than 2017’s Port Hills fires in Christchurch.

After 22 days the Civil Defence State of Emergency was lifted on February 27, and the region moved into a transition phase from response to recovery.