4 October 2020 is a day the Lake Ōhau community will never forget. A day many of their lives were turned upside down.

In the middle of the night, residents of Lake Ōhau Village were woken up by the deadly threat of a large fire approaching their town. As the flames grew taller and the fire got closer, people fled their homes with very little, some with just the clothes they were wearing.

The Lake Ōhau fire has been recorded as the largest wildfire in New Zealand’s history. In its path, it destroyed 5040 hectares of land and 48 dwellings, but thankfully, there was no loss of life.

The fire has left very little behind, transforming the picturesque village of Lake Ōhau into a ghost town powdered with ash and filled with an acrid smell. Colours have gone, all that is left are random objects, unrecognisable belongings and parts of structures standing, all under a grey filter taking away any sense of life.

While a few houses surprisingly escaped the fire and are still standing, most residents that night lost everything: their home, their belongings, their personal memories, their confidence and for some, their business and income.

What is left of a truck at Lake Ōhau Village following the devastating fire.

A listening ear

At the request of Civil Defence, a total of ten New Zealand Red Cross’ Disaster Welfare and Support Team members were deployed to Twizel to support people affected by the fire. As highly-trained volunteers, they have been providing psychological first aid (PFA) – emotional and practical support to the survivors and the wider community.

PFA is about listening to people without judgement, offering comforting words and a warm smile, pointing people to available services, pulling out a tissue, handing out a cuppa and, sometimes, giving a hug.

“Not only have the survivors gone through the traumatic experience of escaping the fire, they also have to come to terms with the fact that their house has burnt to the ground leaving almost nothing behind, and that their entire community is affected. That’s why we are here, to support them as they deal with this very stressful experience,” says Nicki Curr, Timaru Team Leader.

“Some of us have accompanied residents to their property, or what is left of it. Whether they were seeing it for the first time or the fifth time, in many cases, the emotions were so heavy that having a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on has been useful for them.”

Volunteers have also been supporting the centre set up by Civil Defence in Twizel, talking to people over the phone who have been outside of the region and who own a house in Lake Ōhau Village and to farmers who own land in the area.

New Zealand Red Cross disaster response volunteers train all year around to be ready to deploy to an emergency such as the Lake Ōhau fire. Our disaster response volunteers mostly train and respond to emergencies in their local area, but may travel throughout New Zealand supporting other Red Cross teams when needed. Our response teams are trained in a variety of skills, from first aid to ground-based rescue and PFA.

Disaster Welfare and Support Team members in Twizel.

The life-saving emergency plan

Being prepared for an emergency can save lives and the horrific night at Lake Ōhau Village is proof of that. Members of the community knew what to do in the event of a fire – they had an emergency plan in place and that night, they executed it.

A resident rang the emergency alarm in the village, neighbours woke each other up by tooting their car horns in the street or banging on each other’s door, and they left as quickly as they could. Their emergency plan was a life saver and a lesson for all communities across the country to make their own plan.

“The event at Lake Ōhau Village is heart-breaking and our thoughts here at Red Cross are with the whole community,” says Angela Sutherland, New Zealand Red Cross Disaster Risk Management General Manager.

“What the residents did prior to the fire – setting up an emergency plan – and then the night of the fire – executing that plan – is something the rest of us around Aotearoa should learn from. We all have to think about how disasters can impact us and what we can do keep safe, just like the Lake Ōhau community.”

Be prepared

Here are actions you and your community can take: