A firsthand account of the Port Hills fire.
It was like those silly quizzes where people ask you questions you don’t think you will actually have to answer: “If you house is burning down, what three things would you grab?” That is presuming you are in the house. We, like everyone else didn’t think it would happen to us.
I first read about the Port Hills fire on my news feed on the Tuesday morning. A friend had been biking up in the hills and taken a photo of the large clouds of smoke billowing up. It’s not the first time I’d seen fire on the hills or in the city, so I didn’t think much of it. Shortly afterwards another friend posted videos of the fire. They showed how the fire had spread and made me more concerned. Since I currently live in Auckland, I called my mum to ask her about the fire and she assured me it was on the other side of the hill, quite far from our place.
Periodically I looked at the news to see if anything had changed. There were helicopters with monsoon buckets fighting the fire, so I wasn’t too worried. I remember thinking “we’re not Australia, so I’m sure it will be fine”.
On Wednesday morning I saw news that the fire had spread into the new adventure bike park that had just opened and whose entryway comes off our road. I text mum asking about the fire and whether not she was preparing for evacuation. She hadn’t been told to.
“You are getting ready to evacuate thought right?” I asked. Once again she reassured me it was still far away and she thought it would be fine. She had gone into her office in town to do some work.
I messaged Mum again. No reply. I assumed it meant she was taking action.
I kept my eye on my Facebook feed for updates. Power was cut to a huge amount of the city. A friend living in Cashmere saw a power pylon explode.
I messaged Mum again. No reply. I assumed it meant she was taking action. Sure enough, a friend who lived nearby had called her to say she needed to get home immediately as the fire was getting very close to the house.
Having experienced the earthquakes in Christchurch six years ago, I knew how vital a mobile phone can be so I decided not to call and interrupt or waste battery power. Instead I kept an eye on Mum’s Facebook feed.
At 2.48pm she simply posted “Evacuating”. That was when I started to panic a little. I was in Auckland, I couldn’t do anything to help. Then that dreaded question became a little too real. “What did she grab? Photos? Files? The safe? Did Dad make it home? Grandma?” So many thoughts raced through my head and all I could do was watch my screen update.
5.19pm, she updated her status: “Pray for the wind to stop. Fire very close, in our neighbors’ paddock, putting buckets of water on our houses.”
My parents were watching the fire consume the hill from Centennial Park, the local sports ground. My dad, who runs a telescope business, happened to have a pair of binoculars with him. They watched, helpless to do anything. I text them telling them that I loved them. What more could I do?
The helicopters stopped for the night as visibility was becoming very limited.
7pm, another update from Mum: “Fire in our trees at the bottom of the section”, followed by: “Fire very close to the house” half-an-hour later.
With every update I felt sadder and I felt selfish. “Burn other things, not our house!” I remember thinking. “It never actually happens to you right? It can’t happen, it’s not real.”
But it was. My parents were watching their home get enveloped with flames, and so was the rest of Christchurch. This private moment, a beautiful, yet devastating spectacle. Our house and others’ were now burning for the public’s entertainment, for their photos, for their videos.
Had the roles been reversed I would be doing the same, but knowing it was our home, I began to understand the violation others must feel in situations like this. Privilege is stripped away. I see life for what is really is, unfair, completely random and fragile. None of us are safe. No amount of insurance, protection, love, or money can insure safety. We all watch on, fascinated with the lottery.
My parents were on the news that night; they were so calm, so grounded. Their Christian faith kept them strong. They were just glad to be safe. I was glad too. The helicopter pilot David Steven Askin wasn’t, and that’s not fair. It’s a horrible lottery that no one wins.
Just after 11pm, Mum told us the alarm company rang to say the smoke alarms were going off. I think many of us knew then it was game over for the house. Some of us slept, some of us didn’t. There was nothing that could be done until morning.
Smoke was thick as the helicopters started back up next morning. Visibility was very low. Had the house survived? The smoke was taunting us. News reports said that four houses on our street had been destroyed in the night. I thought it most likely to be the houses at the very top of the hill.
I was out that morning and overheard a couple discussing the fire; they were so nonchalant about it. I wanted to shout at them that it was my family home that was likely going up in smoke and to be more sensitive, but I refrained. Just then a friend sent me a link to a live streaming video of my parents.
Mum and Dad were up on the hill next to ours, Hackthorne Road. They were with a news team filming live. Dad had his binoculars and they were trying to make out the house. The smoke was clearing; they could see the house. The interviewer was asking them questions. Her probing frustrated me. But without the news crew, I wouldn’t be watching my parents, I wouldn’t be there.
I made the mistake of glancing at the comments coming up on the live video. Some of them were incredibly hurtful. How could people be so heartless in a moment like that?
“I can see the east wall of the house …,” Dad said.
Tears were welling in my eyes. “If he can see the wall that means it’s ok, right?” I thought. I couldn’t hear the video that well so moved somewhere quieter. Mum was speaking now, her voice cracking and upset,
“… sorry if you are finding out about this live on TV, especially our family, we actually are ok…”
That means it’s gone. I can’t believe it’s gone. I burst into tears. I made the mistake of glancing at the comments coming up on the live video. Some of them were incredibly hurtful. How could people be so heartless in a moment like that? They don’t know the story of our house, that it was built up little by little to accommodate a very large family. They don’t know how incredibly generous, hospitable and hardworking my parents are. How strangers could have such lack of compassion to people that just lost their family home of 25 years was unfathomable.
I knew I had to get home to be with my family. I quickly made arrangements and booked next flight to Christchurch.
One of my brothers picked me up and took me to the house where my parents were staying. I learnt Mum had rescued the dogs, most of our photos and albums, as well as a few other essentials. Dad had retrieved most of his work files, and other important documents from the safe. There was no sign of our cat.
That night, all squashed into my brother’s lounge, my family shared a meal of fish and chips. I couldn’t remember the last time we had done that. It was now a waiting game to see when we could get up to the property. The fires were still a massive threat and fire crews were still working relentlessly to control the fires.
The next day the hill was still cordoned off. Crews were uncovering and controlling hotspots, cutting down trees and digging large paths in the ground to prevent further fire spread. We picked up a newspaper and were horrified to see our house on page two completely engulfed in flames. It was the most haunting sight. It seemed so brutal, so angry and destructive. On the next page was an aerial photo of the aftermath. I never thought I’d see my home in the newspaper let alone like this.
On Saturday I arrived at my brother’s house just as Mum was leaving.
“They are going to are let us up to the property,” she said, gesturing for me to get in her car.
As we turned into our street, I saw orange signs which read “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD”. Around the corner we came to the first cordon. There was an army officer there; a high vis jacket worn on top of his camo uniform. The high vis jacket read “School Patrol”. Clearly they weren’t prepared for this.
The officer let us move forward to the next cordon. There were army, fire and police personnel scattered across the road, and a police unit truck and army tent set up. I could see a helicopter above ferrying water to the still smoking sites. Mum and I signed in with one of the police officers, which brought back memories getting into the cordon by my city flat after the earthquake. I was nervous.
The police escorted us up the hill, as we were to have police and fire personnel with us at all times. We started to see the blacked hillside; the scorched earth was meters from homes standing unscathed. My eyes were greedily attempting to take in everything at the same time. In the distance, I saw a house miraculously still standing, the forest directly behind it charred.
We passed a neighbour’s house. There were two schist rock pillars standing where the front door presumably used to be and nothing else.
The road was becoming busier the further up we got. Teams of electricians were hustling to put up new power lines and locating and repairing any damage the fires caused. Firefighters were digging to find hotspots and putting out any they came across.
We passed a neighbour’s house. There were two schist rock pillars standing where the front door presumably used to be and nothing else. The house directly in front of us was in perfect condition, not a hint of ash. They had the swimming pool that became a refilling station for the monsoon buckets, but it wasn’t enough to save my family home.
We stopped in the driveway. Where our house once stood only a handful of days ago was a huge pile of rubble. It looked like a bomb had been dropped directly on top of it. In the photos trees still looked green, but now seeing the trees in person it was a different story. The tops may have been green, but from the ground to the remaining branches the trunks were completely black.
I think most of my family had envisioned going up to the property and sifting through the ashes for things that survived, a few lucky pieces here and there, but were we mistaken. As far as we could see it was broken glass, tiles, bricks and twisted metal held together with a muddy, ashy mush. What was most striking was the size of the place; it felt so much smaller, like the house couldn’t possibly have fit in the space the rubble now occupied. It felt so different, like we weren’t home at all.
We could see the fire’s path, up through the trees to what was once our shed and over to the house. A firefighter said he had been working on extinguishing the wall of flames opposite our property and turned in horror to see our house had wholly caught alight. I can’t imagine how defeating that would feel, thinking you were keeping the fire away only to have it creep up around the other side.
Standing on what was the kitchen, we could make out a few plates and bowls that remained as well as pots, pans and baking trays buckled and thick with rust. I found our dog bowls in a similar condition, as well as the kitchen fire extinguisher, which I held up to one of the firefighters who remarked it was still full, though completely unusable.
Even though we lost so much, almost a lifetime of belongings, it really gives me perspective on the important things in life, and how much we can have without owning anything at all.
More trees were being pulled down in the backyard, trees my siblings and I climbed up as kids. The amazing tree house my dad had built was gone without a trace. The trampoline burnt away, springs hanging loose. Somehow the swings survived unscathed, freshly painted for the grandkids. The path was so random, illogical.
I was surprised I wasn’t sadder while looking at the destruction; perhaps it was because of all the emergency personnel around, there was no space for private thoughts or emotions. Or perhaps it was because I knew we would be OK.
In many ways we are lucky we can rebuild on the same site, many people weren’t able to have that luxury after the earthquakes. Even though we lost so much, almost a lifetime of belongings, it really gives me perspective on the important things in life, and how much we can have without owning anything at all. I think of the millions of refugees fleeing their countries looking for new places to live, people without homes, and those that don’t get a chance to live in the home they have.
At the end of the day we all need the same basic things to survive and thrive, so I struggle to see a place for hate or inequality in the world. When you strip everything away you are offered a chance to see what is simply trivial and what is of true importance. People are the most important.
I would like to thank everyone who has helped, or offered to help my family through this time, your kindness is overwhelming. And to all the firefighters, police and emergency services trying to save our home. My heart especially goes out to the Askin family, as the rebuilding process will be a lot more difficult and lengthy for them. May you find peace.
If you want to help in some way I believe there is a Give A Little page for the Askin family. I would also like to think there might be Port Hills replanting projects for the happening in the future, so keep an eye out.
Kia kaha Christchurch.