I can remember the day very vividly.
I was 10 years old, returning from a three-day Boys' Brigade camp in Southland. All the parents were picking up their boys from the Waikoikoi Hall which sat opposite our house divided only by a small tarseal road. The large gravel carpark had ample space for the utes and farm trucks that serviced the rural farms but there was something unusual about the view as we drove over the green hills towards our parents.
I could see our house in the distance, but I couldn't quite tell what was different - for a moment I thought Mum and Dad had painted the creamy yellow bungalow a darker colour - but as I approached the carpark my heart sank.
It was all gone - there was virtually nothing left. Our family home was completely destroyed by fire. I remember my Nana Shirley coming over and just hugging me "saying it's all right everyone's safe".
It was a lot to process as a 10-year-old. I imagine for those who lost property in Ohau recently it's a lot to process at any age.
There were three key things that have stayed with me during the past 37 years since that fire (most likely caused by "an electrical fault", they told me later) and they will stay with me forever.
The smell - for anyone who's experienced a house fire they will recognise it in a heartbeat. It's the smell of all of your clothes, furniture, photos, toys and appliances turned to ash - you can smell a house fire in an instant.
The destruction - "Half a Bedroom:That's all that's left", screamed the headline in the local paper and they were right. The blackened fridge lying on its side, the twisted metal frame where family dinners were once held, and the metal fire grate ironically still in place were among the few items left.
The third and most important lesson was understanding the importance of community.
It was incredible watching neighbours and locals rally around the family.
A passerby who turned out to be the deputy principal of the local secondary school helped Mum move the dogs to safety - a year later he helped facilitate my sister's acceptance in the private Catholic college. Firefighters found Mum's rings in the rubble after an extensive search.
We had nowhere to live but within a few hours we were offered a house down the road by our next door neighbour and within 24 hours, boxes of cutlery, clothes and comfort food kept snaking up the long driveway, past the wandering livestock, delivered by locals who wanted to help out. Those who Mum would get the odd emergency supply of fresh cow's milk from, those who would help Dad out when he needed to get rid of large bedraggled macrocarpa trees that were dangerously close to the house, in return for the use of his car inspection pit, the only one in the tiny village.
I took it for granted while puberty took hold, but as time went by I kept thinking about that day and how we managed to move forward – it was all due to our community.
No matter where you live – a city town, farm, under a bridge – knowing your neighbours is an essential part of dealing with life's daily grind.
My big fear today is that we have slowly become more isolated, even though in some cases you can literally pass the sugar through the window of your neighbour's house.
We no longer rely on community watch groups or even know the story of our neighbours. In some cases you may have lived next door to someone for years and still don't know their name and that's a shame, because you never know what a chat over the fence can produce.
I try hard to get to know my next door neighbours in suburban Grey Lynn because of those events in 1985 – a little note with my phone numbers and a bottle of regifted wine usually breaks the ice. We share Flexibin space, driveways and during April (socially distanced) isolation updates. It felt better, easier and safer.
Go on, be brave. Make yourself known in case you need to call them one day to tell them there's water coming out their front door, the car was broken into, the alarm is going off or as in Ohau's case – you need to alert people to get out because of fire. We need to get to know our communities better, especially today.
It wasn't just the community of Ohau that had a plan to evacuate, it was the community that saved lives. I suspect based on my experience as a young kid it will be the community that pulls together to rebuild with even stronger foundations than before.