Editorial: Unfortunate Christchurch hit by new catastrophe

Christchurch must be wondering what it has done to deserve the ravages of nature. The fire that raged over its Port Hills this week has not left an insurance bill on the scale of the earthquake that hit the central city six years ago this coming Wednesday, but it was the largest bushfire to threaten a New Zealand city within memory.

It was akin to fires that are more familiar to Australian cities at this time of year, fuelled by tinder dry scrub and trees after months of almost no rain in Canterbury.

The South Island east coast is not the only region having an unusually dry summer, hard as it may be to believe after a week of rain in the north.

The North Island's east coast has been in a drought, as has Northland. Total fire bans are in force in Northland, Coromandel, the East Coast and Hawke's Bay. They should be strictly observed in the light of the events near Christchurch.

The fires that started in two places in the Port Hills on Monday evening spread quickly and unpredictably, fanned by changing winds. Residents of the hills and new suburbs near them were given just minutes to evacuate.

Everybody can imagine the horror of an order such as that, and wonder what personal items and valuables they would want to quickly throw in the car. Many a household far from the danger zone will have been taking stock of its own preparedness this week.

Civil Defence co-ordinators around the country will be taking stock of their preparations too. Their minister, Gerry Brownlee, did not help them by making his frustrations public on Monday night.

With fires still burning, a state of emergency in force and nervous evacuees wondering which way the wind would spread the flames during the night, Brownlee's grumbles about the timing of the emergency declaration were not an urgent concern.

In fact he was only making the task of emergency services harder. At a time like that people need to be given confidence that the authorities know what is happening and are taking action to deal with it.

People need to have complete trust in the emergency services when they are being advised to abandon their homes at a few minutes' notice. Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel sounded much more calm and in control at the height of the emergency.

Doubtless Brownlee's complaints at the quality of information he had been receiving in Wellington that day are justified. Details on the areas affected and the number of houses lost or threatened has been hard to establish at times.

Brownlee complained that he was getting more information from the news media than from Civil Defence channels on Monday, which just means firefighters, police and other emergency services were too busy to file reports.

But communications are vitally important in an emergency. Civil Defence co-ordinators know the range of skills, equipment and logistical services available in their area and need to know quickly what is needed and what help they must call on from outside the area.

Canterbury's Civil Defence ought to have been particularly well honed by the earthquakes.

Brownlee too, has been given plenty of practice in his role by his home city. If the organisation was not up to scratch this time, he ought to be held to account.

The right time to ask those questions is not when the fire's burning, the inquiry should start now.

- NZ Herald

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