Why confusion spread in face of city’s danger
Numbers tell a tale of the devastation the Port Hills fire has wrought in Christchurch since Monday afternoon. Eleven houses destroyed, hundreds of residents evacuated, 14 helicopters in the air and more than 130 firefighters on the ground battling a blaze that has now spread over 1800 hectares.
Officials say the fight against fire could continue for weeks, but some are already asking a critical question: Could more have been done to keep the situation under control?
Among those with concerns is Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, who declared himself ‘‘perplexed’’ on Wednesday with poor communication and the delay in declaring a local statement of emergency. There are other areas of concern. Why were Selwyn rural fire teams in charge of tackling the blaze, even as it spread into Christchurch’s urban areas? Should they have asked for more help earlier, rather than relying on local resources to tackle the fire?
And what does this say about our emergency management set-up, given similar problems with crossed wires following last November’s Kaikoura earthquake?
Canterbury Civil Defence controller John Mackie says officials were ‘‘just going by the book’’ when leaving the initial response to the fires to Selwyn’s rural fire team, rather than Christchurch officials.
‘‘That’s prescribed in the act . . . the responsibility for the rural fire lies on the authority in whose area it starts – even though it may cross a boundary, that jurisdiction doesn’t change.’’
Mackie says Canterbury’s Civil Defence group set up an emergency operations centre early on Wednesday morning, as Governors Bay came under threat, and made the case for a state of emergency when evacuations started to increase later that afternoon.
Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel denies officials were too slow to declare a state of emergency, saying work on the declaration began ‘‘from the moment we were advised that people were being evacuated from their houses’’.
There was no issue of firefighters lacking in numbers, Mackie says – it was simply that they felt they had the fire under control, before the weather began to conspire against them.
‘‘The rural fire officers were saying that they had ample resources available. It was only when [there was an] escalation of the number of people being evacuated, and the [increased] risk to urban residents, that was the main reason for the declaration.’’
But couldn’t there have been more helicopters with monsoon buckets in the air, or firefighters on the ground?
Not according to Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton, who says there are more choppers available than there is room for them. ‘‘We’re at saturation point in the sky – there’s not another helicopter that could fit in the space safely.’’
However, Brownlee’s comments that he got more accurate information from media than from officials appears to have struck a nerve.
Dalzel admits to ‘‘a bit of a breakdown in communication’’, while Mackie says there were some problems with communication between Selwyn fire teams on the ground and Christchurch in the initial response, which have since improved.
‘‘The sit reps [situation reports] could have been more regular, more frequent, but again when you’re in the thick of it, I know what it’s like . . . it can be frustrating waiting for data to come back, but it’s about people in the field and the first responders prioritising their time.’’
Brownlee says that’s not due to those on the ground, who are ‘‘very brave people doing a great job’’, but the Civil Defence structure which makes their jobs harder.
Similar problems were exposed after the magnitude-7.8 shake in Kaikoura last year, when residents complained about mixed messages and confusion regarding the tsunami risk in their areas.
Brownlee has hinted at changes to the chain of command, with the mix of local, regional and national Civil Defence organisations – along with the rural fire service in this case – creating room for confusion.
‘‘When you’ve got six headquarters, each with a controller, each with their own sector, it’s worrying that you don’t have – and there was not in the case of the Kaikoura events – a single person to go to.’’
He was due to host cross-party talks on possible changes to Civil Defence legislation yesterday, before postponing them to head down to Christchurch.
So what can we learn from this week’s fire?
Labour’s Port Hills MP, Ruth Dyson, says – not unreasonably – that it’s too early to look for faults with the emergency response, given the fires were still being fought.
‘‘Today isn’t the day to be asking those questions – today is the day to be asking the question, how can we help? How can we make this work for people? That’s my focus.’’
Mackie says ‘‘navel gazing’’ can come after the fire is dealt with, while Prime Minister Bill English moved to tamp down Brownlee’s stinging criticism as the pair visited Christchurch.
‘‘I don’t think the average Kiwi’s going to be looking at whether the bureaucratic process was as precise as it should have been . . .
‘‘When you see the houses that have been saved – a little island of green in a sea of black – these guys have done a good job.’’
However, those ‘‘bureaucratic’’ problems seem certain to be addressed, with Brownlee setting Civil Defence in his sights as he tries to stop confusion from spreading like wildfire in the case of a future emergency.
A fire near Westmorland guts homes along Worsley Rd on Wednesday night as the growing blaze swept through the Port Hills.
Prime Minister Bill English during a visit to the Christchurch command centre yesterday. He said he was confident in the performance of officials and firefighters who were doing their best to control the blaze.