The first man on the scene of Tasman's devastating bush fire has spoken about how he and a tractor driver could only watch helplessly as it rampaged "out of control" within seconds.
Father-of-two Joel Scott was heading home from working in the bush as a hydraulic technician to try to get away on holiday when he spotted a puff of smoke in a tinder-dry Pigeon Valley paddock, 30km south of Nelson.
"I was actually going to jump out of the vehicle and give them a mouthful for starting the fire or having a fire going, thinking there certainly shouldn't be one going. As a region we don't even really know how dry it is," he told the Herald last night.
Scott left his vehicle in the middle of the road and started running towards the flames.
The Wakefield resident jumped a few fences and immediately knew it was big.
Scott asked the tractor driver — a local contractor working on land leased by a local farmer — if he had phoned emergency services.
The Herald understands that farmer is Tasman man Ian Parkes.
But the tractor driver said he couldn't get any reception.
"He was flustered, as you can imagine," Scott said. They didn't communicate further.
Scott thinks the contractor can't have initially thought it was a fire.
"Maybe he thought he could disc the fire over, but by the time he even got back in the tractor, it was out of control."
Scott then phoned 111 — at 2.13pm — and took the first photo of the fire.
He then phoned his wife to say he'd be late and then took the second photo — about 30-45 seconds later.
"I knew we couldn't do anything," Scott said. He opened all the farm gates to get to the fire and waited on the road for the first firefighters to arrive.
While he was waiting, he took the decision to ring 111 again.
"Basically I screamed at the operator and said, 'Your ground staff are going to be useless.
Just get the helicopters under way ... and lots of them'," Scott said.
"I knew in the first two minutes that it was out of control."
Scott left after five fire trucks were on the scene.
There were already a lot of rubberneckers on the scene, he said.
"Had they got a helicopter there relatively quickly — like in the first 20 minutes — they potentially could've saved that," Scott said. "That [first] 111 call was made when the fire was only the size of a barbecue fire. I wish I'd taken a photo as I entered the property but I didn't.
"I did what I think anyone else would do, but [what] I am mentally struggling [with] over the last few days is the fact I couldn't do anything. Now in hindsight, you ask yourself what more could I have done? I'm a pretty practical chap and I don't know why I am struggling with it but it's definitely getting to me".
Scott — the fire's key witness — yesterday returned to the scene with top Fire and Emergency New Zealand brass to show them where he took the fire's first photo and what he saw.