Cherie Howie tells of charred properties and disrupted lives as the battle goes on.

It's been more than a week since a spark flickered to flame and then all-out fire last Tuesday, racing up a tinder-dry Pigeon Valley hill, 30km south of Nelson, and then much, much further.

By Monday New Zealand's largest forest fire since 1955 had blackened 2300ha and still had a perimeter of 25km.

The flames had taken one home, forced about 3000 people from others across a handful of valleys and in the Waimea Plains settlement of Wakefield, and was the focus of thousands of hours of collective toil by 150 firefighters from the far north to the deep south, the pilots of 23 helicopters, and countless others both paid and not.

All the while Civil Defence controller Roger Ball and Fire and Emergency incident controller John Sutton came out twice a day to update the public of the endless graft to gain the upper hand on fires that scorched earth within 2km of Wakefield, population 3000, and within metres of some more rural homes.


And as they again told Wakefield residents it wasn't yet safe to go home, the community did its best to step up with free accommodation, donated food in bellies and, when needed, hugs.

But then the expected high winds of Sunday hadn't eventuated, firefighters had had two really good days and yes, you can go home, Sutton told the 860 Wakefield households displaced by the forest fires. Around 400 in valley areas face a longer wait.

"I've got the feeling that we're starting to turn the corner," Sutton said, although he quickly added firefighters would likely still be putting out the blaze in March and the bone-dry Tasman district's fire risk remained so high forestry harvesting and the use of farm machinery are still banned.

Zane Hooper, the acting district commander for police, also sounded a warning, this time to rubberneckers with a sudden desire to visit blink-and-you-miss-it Wakefield.

For now, don't, he said.

Residents of the tiny town still have to be ready to evacuate again, if needed, with the fire risk still extreme.

But by Monday night the community scattered by the threat of destruction began to come together again.

Locals are viewing the massive smoke cloud from the Tasman bush fire near Pigeon Valley, Nelson on 07 February, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Locals are viewing the massive smoke cloud from the Tasman bush fire near Pigeon Valley, Nelson on 07 February, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell

And so, when Ball and Sutton and Hooper and the politicians stopped talking just after 4pm, their good news beamed live around the country, something new happened: Tasman District Council staff watching the announcements from the back of the press conference were clapping. Their applause spoke for so many.

What a week.

It was 2.13pm on Tuesday last week when dad-of-two Joel Scott spotted flames in a paddock being tended to by a contractor for a farmer.

"It was only the size of a barbecue fire," he said.

Less than a minute later, the flames were racing up a hill and Scott was screaming to the 111 operator, "Your ground staff are going to be useless, just get the helicopters under way".

The fire grew throughout Waitangi Day — when four firefighting crews and three aircraft were pulled away to put out a suspicious 10ha fire at nearby Rabbit Island — and the following day, Thursday, was particularly hairy.

Sixty sheep rescued from Redwood Valley later had to be put down because of their injuries, and Ministry of Primary Industries and SPCA staff — who through the week have been escorted on to properties where possible to feed and water stranded livestock — set trapped pigs free from a flaming pen before escaping the inferno themselves.

Hundreds of animals — from birds to chickens to cats and dogs — were also being cared for at the Richmond Showgrounds by MPI, SPCA and animal charity Huha.

The disaster became more serious on Friday, when Wakefield residents were told to leave their homes, and the fire nightmare continued with evacuations after another suspicious fire, this time at Walters Bluff in Nelson, again diverted resources from the main fire.

The Walters Bluff fire was later extinguished with only a balcony lost, but the main fire continued to grow.

At last count it covered an area equivalent to 2300 rugby fields, no surprise to the man who first alerted authorities.

"I knew in the first two minutes that it was out of control", Scott said.

On Monday, as the three-day evacuation order for Wakefield came to an end, a rattled Scott was still preparing himself — he lives 8km south of Wakefield at Belgrove — for the worst.

He had moved horses and cows off his property and was ready to go if the fire again took a turn for the worse.

It's different when you've seen how fast a fire can move.

"It still seems unreal. You couldn't do anything."

Scott had a holiday planned this week, and he went, but then came home early.

Those fires have disrupted so many lives, so many plans. But they've also brought out the best.

Anna Perry-Smith and Janine Thompson are among the volunteers offering food and comfort at the Nelson Suburbs Football Club. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Anna Perry-Smith and Janine Thompson are among the volunteers offering food and comfort at the Nelson Suburbs Football Club. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As firefighters and chopper pilots fought to gain control of the fire — they're not there yet, but there is a containment line right around the perimeter, Sutton said on Monday — the country has formed its own containment line behind both them and those worst affected.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced during a visit to the region on Thursday that a mayoral relief fund had started with a $20,000 kickstart from the Government, along with other support already on offer from various ministries. Donations can be made via the Tasman District Council website,

Meanwhile, local businesses donated meals, church groups held day-long cook-offs and ordinary residents have filled trolleys with groceries for those most in need. Others offered beds and even entire homes to those without a roof over their heads as the fires raged.

Volunteers' efforts were on full display at the Nelson Suburbs Football Club rooms in Stoke, where donated loo rolls were stacked almost to the ceiling in the men's changing room and minimart of free items for evacuees took over the bar room.

Volunteer organiser Janine Thompson, working up to 14 hours a day on five hours' sleep and hugging the sometimes tearful arrivals, personified the efforts of many when she pushed past fatigue to do her bit.

"This is something I can do. This is how I can contribute."

Wakefield evacuee Terry Coleman was also pushing through the hard times when the fire was at its worst and he was forced to park his caravan-turned-temporary home in an Aniseed Valley paddock, and face the fear that he might not have a home to return to.

In the heat of the day, Coleman sheltered under his awning and looked at the smoke-hazed Waimea Plains. At night, he took comfort in looking toward that other great unknown.

"I just sit around and gaze at the stars. What can you do?"

But, as Coleman watched and Thompson hugged and Scott came home early from holiday, and even as more residents — this time in Wai-iti, south of Wakefield, were told on Saturday to prepare for possible evacuation — the hard, dirty, unglamorous slog of the firefighters gave hope.

And still, the fight goes on.

Another fire controller, Trevor Mitchell, said fire crews are now working on strengthening the containment lines, checking forecasts and identifying pressure points.

Things had been "a bit breezy", but they were doing okay, Mitchell said.

"Things are looking reasonably comfortable."

Over the past few days fire controllers like Sutton, and Mitchell, have remained careful with their language, but their growing confidence in the battle against this devastating blaze has also been hard to miss.

Long may it continue.