On closer inspection, luck played a bigger part in no one losing their life in last year’s Lake Ōhau Alpine Village fire. David Williams reports

It was the country’s most damaging wildfire in living memory.

The early-morning conflagration in October last year destroyed most of the houses in the Mackenzie Basin’s Lake Ōhau Alpine Village, burning through more than 5000 hectares, including conservation land.

The costs were eye-watering. Fighting the fire from the air alone cost more than $1.2 million, while insurance losses totalled about $35 million.

It’s a miracle no one was killed.

Last week, fire investigators published two reports which revealed the blaze was sparked by an electrical fault on a power line. Legal action is being considered.

Other major findings from the Fire and Emergency (FENZ) reports were that the incident was well-managed, and the community was prepared. A major reason posited for the successful evacuation of Lake Ōhau village was quick-thinking residents enacting the community’s wildfire plan, and the swift response by fire volunteers from nearby Ōmārama and Twizel.

“Recognising the wildfire risk, we have been working with the Lake Ōhau community for more than 20 years to develop a wildfire plan – and providing wildfire equipment and training,” Fire and Emergency Te Kei region manager Mike Grant said in a statement last week.

The Waitaki District Council installed a fire siren in the village in about 2012, which FENZ said played a “key role” in alerting residents of the need to evacuate.

However, this simplistic narrative – of a long-standing plan at Lake Ōhau that worked – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Indeed, it’s dispelled by information contained in FENZ’s reports.

There was more confusion and chaos in the village than was portrayed by the official line, and it seems luck played a much larger part in no one losing their life than was acknowledged last week.

Interestingly, the fire investigation report made no major recommendations.

That’s despite known problems with existing systems, and the village being surrounded by wilding trees and other pest plants, which are an obvious and immediate source of fuel for wildfires. One might argue a stronger report would have sounded a warning to other areas of the country with homes nestled in forested areas.

Gale-force winds fanned the fire that swept through Lake Ōhau Alpine Village last year. Photo: Supplied

“Emergency preparedness was well established and tested within the Lake Ōhau community – the community had a plan and like most plans you don’t ever expect to use it,” the executive summary of FENZ’s 105-page wildfire investigation report says. “The plan and the response by those staying within the community on the morning of 4 October most certainly avoided injuries and possibly loss of lives.”

It was a highly unusual situation – a wildfire fanned by gale-force winds that buffeted Lake Ōhau’s homes at 3 o’clock in the morning. Gusts were thought to have reached 160km/h.

The first 111 call was made at 3.06am, and the fire is estimated to have reached the village about 4.30am. (Also that morning, crews were called to a fire in Livingstone, inland from Oamaru, stretching emergency resources.)

The response did save lives. Residents activated the fire siren, and drove through the streets sounding their horns, and banged on doors and windows to wake neighbours. (One story put the village’s early warning about the fire down to an elderly dog’s need to pee at night.)

High praise was also given to emergency services, including volunteer fire crews who realised they needed to save lives rather than try and fight the huge conflagration. A police officer from Ōmārama evacuated one resident “as flames were encroaching on the house”.

But to suggest evacuation planning was a success overlooks the fact many in the village didn’t know about the plan – and some people who heard the emergency siren weren’t sure what to do.

A Civil Defence community response plan, acknowledging the village was at heightened risk of wildfires, was developed by the Waitaki council when it was in charge of rural fire activities. A copy of the plan was “put in every home”, FENZ said in its operational review released last week.

But it’s clear many owners weren’t aware of it and didn’t display it prominently, as suggested.

(The council was sidelined in 2014, when responsibility passed to the newly formed Otago Rural Fire Authority which, in turn, folded into FENZ three years later.)

Fire authorities have trained interested Ōhau residents annually in how to use hoses placed in fire boxes dotted around the village.

However, the just-released FENZ report into last year’s fire said knowledge of the plan was “mostly only fully understood by the permanent residents”.

“Evidence gathered showed that people staying as either short-term holiday makers or owners who use their property as a holiday home were not fully aware of the village plan. This meant some may have thought the siren was alerting the local volunteer brigade to the fire, but the nearest brigade is in Ōmārama.”

A 2016 copy of the community response plan, provided to Newsroom by FENZ, advises residents to activate a “telephone tree” in an emergency. It also suggested door knocking or car horn honking – of which there was plenty before last year’s fire reached the village.

“The plan was years old; it needed to be updated,” says Steve Simmons, who lost two homes in the fire and is currently living in Sydney, Australia. (Simmons is chair of the Lake Ōhau Alpine Village Residents and Ratepayers Association but is speaking personally.)

Ten years ago, when there were few permanent residents and no holiday lets, the plan might have worked, he says. “The whole thing’s changed dramatically.”

Grant, the FENZ manager, says: “Along with Waitaki District Council, we will be supporting the Lake Ōhau village community to update their response plan.”

Lake Ōhau Civil Defence com… by David Williams

Simmons and his then 16-year-old son were woken a little before 4 o’clock by fire volunteers banging on the door and ringing the bell. “That’s pretty disappointing,” Simmons says, considering the first 111 call was made at 3.06am.

The siren couldn’t be heard across the village, he says, and there was no systematic way for residents to check other houses before evacuating. “Most people did the best they could but a number of people were left behind.”

The alarm system was “pretty much a failure”, Simmons says.

Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher maintains planning did help residents evacuate but admits the siren didn’t alert everyone – “there were people in the village that didn’t hear it because the wind was blowing so hard.”

Not all houses are clustered in the village’s main streets – some are in the surrounding hillside. There was a fair amount of confusion on the night, Kircher says. “There was definitely was a lot of luck involved.”

The overlap of agencies is so confusing, Kircher’s not sure which of them owns the siren. But the council’s happy to fix it, he says.

“We’ve got a wee bit of money left in the mayoral relief fund from the fire so we’re looking at different options for how that might be used – and one of the options, potentially, was using it to put a couple more sirens in around the village.”

Simmons says his association has suggested the council fund a smarter alarm system.

FENZ had its own tactical plan for how to tackle a fire in the village. But the first appliances to reach Lake Ōhau in October last year didn’t have a copy.

Grant, the FENZ regional manager, tells Newsroom the tactical plan wouldn’t have provided any real assistance for that particular fire. Also, 111 communications centres, which deploy crews to incidents, have copies of fire plans.

The operational review notes the Ōmārama fire officer in charge of the Ōhau incident requested the attendance of the deputy principal rural fire officer because he would probably have a copy of the plan. Why would he didn’t think it would help?

In the initial response to the fire, some communications were missed because appliances operated on separate mobile radio channels. That’s because they are from different FENZ regions – Twizel is from Te Ihu, and Ōmārama is in Te Kei.

Grant says: “Our crews are able to switch over to a common LMR radio channel when they are working together with crews from different districts. We will be refreshing our crews on using that capability.”

The FENZ operational review said because the shared channel was busy, messages in the response’s early stages had to be relayed to mobile phones, “so were not heard by other responding crews”.

Insurances losses from the Lake Ōhau fire were about $35 million. Photo: Supplied

As Grant, the FENZ manager, points out, the conditions on October 4 last year had rarely been seen in New Zealand.

The fire was driven by strong gales, with steep mountain gullies squeezing the wind and increasing its speed. Weather had been dry and, consequently, the surrounding vegetation had a low moisture content.

Another exacerbating factor, according to the incident reports, was a “high available fuel load” – including “elevated wilding pines”, with a high volume of smaller diameter trees.

It’s one thing to have a wildfire plan – the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach – but another way to limit risks is to proactively remove potential fuel sources. That’s what authorities were meant to be doing.

Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, is responsible for pest management.

Graham Sullivan, ECan’s regional leader of biosecurity partnership programmes, says through its pest management plan, land occupiers are required to control wilding conifers “where public money has been spent to control initial infestations to ensure this investment is maintained”.

“Land occupiers are also required to clear wilding conifers from property boundaries where adjoining land has been or is being cleared of wilding conifers.”

ECan had been working with government agency Biosecurity New Zealand through the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme. In almost identical statements, the agencies said about 120,000 hectares of scattered wilding pines had been cleared in the Ohau area between 2017 and the fire, at a cost of just under $2 million.

“Around 4000 hectares of this was within the perimeter of the fire area,” Sullivan says. (FENZ’s report said the fire’s perimeter was 54km long.)

But clearly many wildings trees – too many – remained.

FENZ’s investigation report said once the fire burnt into the wilding and plantation trees, “the fire dynamics changed creating a very intense head fire causing the fire to crown, creating an ember storm”.

While admitting it’s a bit of a hypothetical, Simmons, the Residents and Ratepayers Association chair, thinks he probably wouldn’t have lost his homes if the surrounding vegetation and cut-down trees and scrub had been removed.

“There’s a lot of communities right around New Zealand that potentially could face some of these same issues.” – Gary Kircher

The national control programme removes wilding trees on a cost-share. Land “occupiers” are expected to contribute about a third. That seems a good deal. But clearly it wasn’t good enough to sway some landowners in and around Lake Ōhau Alpine Village.

Biosecurity NZ’s team manager of pest management programmes Sherman Smith said after the Lake Ōhau fire, the programme worked with ECan, FENZ, Waitaki council, and landowners to remove standing burnt trees “as well as remaining live conifer species that posed an ongoing risk”.

Logs have been removed and slash – piles of felled trees and wood waste – tidied up.

The Department of Conservation is another partner in the programme. About 1550 hectares of conservation land were burnt by the fire.

DoC’s eastern South Island operations director Nicola Toki says in a statement: “All wilding pine control had already been completed on the areas of public conservation lands affected by the Ōhau fire and slash piles had been removed.”

In the last financial year, about $900,000 was spent by the programme controlling wilding pines in the Ōhau “management unit”, and $13 million was spent in the wider Mackenzie Basin.

There’s more to do – but for Lake Ōhau village home-owners it has come too late.

Kircher, the Waitaki Mayor, says many wilding trees had been cleared through the Mackenzie Basin but some areas near the village hadn’t been reached.

“They were working their way through. As these things can happen, you don’t get to the right place at the right time.”

Many lessons will be learned from the fire, he says. It’s worth remembering how unprecedented it was – by area, it was a third of the total burnt across the country last year.

“It was pretty significant,” Kircher says. Of the response, he says: “Generally it went really well.”

The mayor worries about other out-of-the-way, tree-lined areas – like Twizel and Naseby. “There’s a lot of communities right around New Zealand that potentially could face some of these same issues, so hopefully they are taking some good lessons from that.”

FENZ manager Grant says more communities will have to learn how to live with wildfire risks because of the effects of climate change and “the way we live”.

“We can’t eliminate all risks and it is important such communities identify the risks they face themselves, acknowledge those risks and start thinking about what they can do collectively to mitigate or reduce that risk.”

Sydney-sider Simmons, meanwhile, is disappointed the Lake Ōhau fire reports suggest the response was successful. “They didn’t ring me, didn’t interview me or any of the others that have a different view,” he says. “They’ve only interviewed people they want to talk to that give a very glowing report.

“I just hope that we’re all smart enough to learn from it, rather than pat each other on the back and say, ‘Well done, boys and girls, and better luck next time’.

“Well, we may not be so lucky next time.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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