Why con­fu­sion spread in face of city’s dan­ger

The Press - - Front Page - SAM SACHDEVA

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.’’

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­cerns

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.

Change likely

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.

PHOTO: JOSEPH JOHN­SON/FAIR­FAX NZ

A fire near West­mor­land guts homes along Wors­ley Rd on Wed­nes­day night as the grow­ing blaze swept through the Port Hills.

PHOTO: STACY SQUIRES/ FAIR­FAX NZ

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.

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