Fire brings out the best and the worst

Hurunui District Council has been appalled with the inaccurate reporting that has been carrying on in relation to Tuesday’s plantation fire – and the negative economic consequences that this irresponsible, sensationalist misreporting has caused to the small village of Hanmer Springs.

The imagery from the fire at its peak was very powerful – and as most of this was taken at dawn, the bright orange flames against the silhouetted background was a spectacular sight and made for pretty compelling viewing.

It is true that access to the single-lane Waiau Ferry Bridge and the portion of narrow road near this area was closed on Tuesday morning, only reopening to stop-go control from around 1pm that afternoon – the fire came very close to this area and in fact crews remain in that area keeping a dampening down vigil as this is the main access road into the Hanmer Basin. The stop-go controls also remain in order to provide a level of safety to those crews working in this area.

But scaremongering information continued to grab headlines yesterday (Thursday) with reports that strong winds had caused the fire to flare up again, with 15 metre flames shooting into the air, local residents being evacuated and eight helicopters doing their best in the trying conditions. Imagery from Tuesday’s fire was used to accompany these extremely exaggerated reports.

The truth is that a portion of the fire ground had reignited – but nowhere near in the size or ferocity of Tuesday morning’s blaze. Crews were already in place and commenced battle immediately – as did the three helicopters that were on standby – with a fourth one joining the firefighting activities shortly thereafter. The strong winds that had been forecast had not yet arrived – and would not until late afternoon. The helicopters were only in the air for a short time before being stood down and back on standby.

Seven properties that were close to the perimeter of the fire were advised to voluntarily evacuate as a precautionary measure – all did so. The fire was very quickly brought under control and these residents were all free to come and go again, but were counselled to remain on alert for any changes that may occur when the strong winds arrived, and to be prepared to evacuate again if need be.

And access to the basin and the village beyond remained open.

The Incident Control Team that were stationed at the site could rightly be encouraged that all of their planning and the resourcing that they had in place, had indeed been very effective in getting on top of the flare-up in a very quick and efficient manner. This planning would stand in good stead for when the winds would arrive later in the day.

So why then did local accommodation and hospitality businesses in Hanmer Springs village, approximately nine kilometres away from the fire (upwind), start getting bombarded with calls from anxious patrons and guests cancelling their weekend bookings because of the fire? These folk told of reading, seeing or listening to reports of the village being evacuated and the fire basically surrounding the town.

So why would they think that?

Disappointingly a lot of the sources of their misinformation were so called ‘credible’ journalists. In today’s world of immediate information, old-fashioned fact-checking seems to have gone by-the-by, and being first with a headline rules. Hurunui District Council’s Facebook page was the official source of updates from DOC (as the lead agency). But ‘journalists’ were sifting through private Facebook pages looking for any possible hint of a new story or angle. And then they reported this scuttlebutt; and this in turn became fact. After all, if you read it in the paper (or online) it must then be true – mustn’t it?

Despite the strong winds last night, the response teams were able to maintain control any flare-ups, and this morning a helicopter with a thermal imaging camera scanned the area, finding a few hot spots – all of which were well within the burn area, and the Incident Management Team are very confident that they have the resources and planning to suppress these today.

So yes, there was a big fire that threatened some houses on the periphery of the plantation and the access bridge into the Hanmer Basin – but as previously said, this was a considerable distance from the village. The village was never in any danger.

So what is the real story to come out of this?

The real story is about small town heroes. Individuals that stepped up, donned their overalls and spent days fighting the fire – and their families and employers who made this possible. The real story is about individuals that opened their businesses and home and provided food and accommodation for the displaced and the volunteers. And it is a story of a community that rallied around their volunteers and their families, and also welcomed and cared for the temporarily displaced and also the influx of support crews.

And the real story is about how irresponsible, headlining grabbing journalists can affect the economic stability of a small rural village that relies heavily on visitors, and has already had a pretty tough week.

So mainstream media; how about telling the real story?