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When a mechanical accident sparked a fire in Pigeon Valley during an exceptionally hot February last year, few residents realised the gravity of the event. But as the fire tore across the dry valleys of the Nelson/Tasman region, consuming everything in its path, local volunteers and residents understood that this wasn’t an emergency to underestimate. In total, our Disaster Welfare and Support Teams (DWST) volunteered 2,040 hours over 21 days to help the thousands of people affected.
“I didn’t have time to think. I just had to leave.”
A year on from the fires, Rob Bradley and Sarah Kim Owen are sitting on the porch surveying the dry land around them. It’s been a hot summer and their creek has almost dried out. They’ve got troughs filled up for their animals, and there is a new pond dug out in case there is need for an emergency supply of water.
They’re all too aware of what another hot summer can bring.
Rob and Sarah live on Rob’s farm in Pigeon Valley, less than 200 metres from where the fire first sparked. Sarah boards with Rob, and they were working outside when they saw the initial incident unfold before their eyes.
“The tractor was going around here – we had to shut the windows for the dust,” Rob recalls. “We could hear rocks going through its discs.”
In a moment, a fire had sparked on the fence line of his property. Sarah and Rob remember watching the fire race up the hill and over into the valley below, thankful that their property was not in the line of fire.
Then the wind turned.
“The smell was amazing,” Rob says. “When it did settle, the wind died down and then it was just a haze in here. That’s probably when I lost my sheep.”
Rob lost 18 sheep in the fire, which he discovered when he was allowed to return to his home for the first time after a week away. Despite the reimbursement that he received for his losses, he says this summer has been a challenging one.
“They were ewes, so I lost the lambs you see. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.”
“I said, 'Why? Is it coming this way?'. They said, 'Just get ready to move'."
Sure enough, two police cars arrived shortly after and gave the two residents 15 minutes to leave their home. In the blur of evacuation, Rob was thinking of everything he should have done. But he understands now that there was little more he could have done. Watching the fires burn in Australia, Rob says he understands the feeling of being forced to abandon everything.
“You don’t get a chance, you’ve just got to move. You’ve got to leave your animals and just walk away.”
So he and Sarah grabbed whatever they could, and headed with the police to the evacuation centre in Wakefield.
“They seemed to just meet you where you are at, no matter who you are.”
Sarah was with Rob when they were told that they had to evacuate. With smoke covering the valley where she lived and flames flickering on the hills just behind her, Sarah packed what she thought was most important and left the rest of her life behind. She had no idea what would be left when they returned.
“It was scary. Mind-numbing,” Sarah says of watching the fire coming toward their home. “I knew where Rob’s insurance papers were, and his two big photo albums that were most precious to him,”
“You just move into that moment of, ‘Ok, this is the moment, I’ve just got to act’.”
She and Rob made their way to the evacuation centre in Wakefield, not knowing what to expect. She wondered, “Are we going to be there overnight or just for a couple of hours?”
As it turned out, Rob and Sarah would have to stay in alternate accommodation for 14 days.
But they had no way of knowing that when they first arrived at the evacuation centre and were met by members of our Disaster Welfare and Support Team (DWST). The volunteers registered them and sat with them while they settled in. Sarah says that the volunteers could see Rob was distressed, and so they stayed with him for as long as he needed.
“A lady took me aside and she just said she was from Red Cross,” says Sarah. “She said, ‘Know this: don’t worry. Any questions, anything you need, come to us.’”
“They were so lovely and warm and we so appreciated it.”
“They were long days but I would rather do that. It was my local community.”
When the call for a potential deployment came for Fiona Taylor, a volunteer with the DWST in Nelson, to support people affected by the fires, she responded immediately. A rural resident, Fiona knew all too well the stress that her neighbours closer to the fire would be under. Not knowing when she’d be needed, Fiona got straight in her car and headed into town. On the way, she remembers feeling ready, but anxious for the people affected.
“I just felt really quite worried for the amount of people that were affected, and how we were going to get them all out really.”
Fiona knew that, because of the rural landscape, reaching everyone in need of help was going to be difficult.
“I didn’t know how they were going to get around everyone’s homes, because there’s a lot of roads that go everywhere. And people and their kids would have been in bed.”
Fiona was sent to the Wakefield evacuation centre where she helped people like Rob and Sarah who had been told to leave their homes with little time to prepare. As most of the people were from farming communities, often the biggest concern was for their animals.
“We’d had a long period of dry, so they were under stress anyway ... so we had to do a lot of listening and try to find a way that would meet the stock needs for them, and then that would help ease their stress.”
Having information and resources to give the people who were coming into the centre was what Fiona saw as most important. She found that being able to direct people to the food parcels which had been donated by generous people from the area, and direct them to further support like Ministry for Primary Industries, made a big difference for people.
“I think we lessened their stress, I do. I think they left feeling like people cared about them.”
Fiona and her teammates, including members from DWSTs from across New Zealand, also met people on cordon lines as they were coming from their homes.
‘The feeling that I got was … that people were blown away by the support that they had from the community plus that, when they were told they had to evacuate for the second time, that the police and Red Cross went to every house.”
We are here for good
Twenty-four hours, seven days a week, we are ready to answer the call. Our team of close to 500 disaster response volunteers across Aotearoa regularly respond to emergencies in their own region and across the country.
To find out more about our teams and how you can join, click here.