One year after the fires, what has New Zealand learnt?

The first I became aware of the fires on the Port Hills that started one year ago was a fellow staff member coming into the staff room and saying there is a big plume of smoke coming from the Port Hills and that it must be a scrub fire. Thinking it would probably be all over in a matter of hours I went out for a quick look and decided to have a closer look at coverage of it in the media later on. A year later, what have we learnt about fighting such fires?

For awhile an amalgamation of the New Zealand Fire Service and other emergency services has been on the cards. Whilst the individual organizations still exist as such, the umbrella organisation overlooking them has changed to Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

To the average person from one day to the next, that means little. One still obviously dials 111 for emergencies. The Police, Fire and St John still have their distinctive roles to play. What has changed is how events requiring an inter agency response are managed. Too late for the 11 houses that were destroyed in the fires last year, but hopefully not too late to prevent a repeat of such an event somewhere else in New Zealand.

When the fires started, the first on the scene were the Fire Service. But, although it was normally the first to respond to rural fires, the Fire Service jurisdiction lay within urban areas. In a rural fire event, the Fire Service would hand over to the Rural Fire Service when their personnel arrived. With 38 fire districts shared between the F.S. and the N.R.F.S., little wonder perhaps that confusion reigned. With these particular fires traversing the boundaries of Selwyn District, Christchurch City and Department of Conservation land, exactly who was in charge (or not in charge)of what, was a mystery.

People affected have complained of a lack of information being fed to them by Civil Defence or the Fire Service. A lack of intelligence meant when the forecast easterly change on Day 3 happened, the Selwyn District Civil Defence did not get it. Information about fire behaviour and progress all seemed to be missing. The Fire Service acknowledges this.

Whilst progress has been made addressing the command structure of the Fire Service, can the same be said for the replanting of the Port Hills areas burnt by the fire with less fire prone vegetation types. Carrying out this replanting using such vegetation types will help to reduce the risk to properties in the future.

It also raises questions about peoples preparedness for scrub fires that firefighters lose control of. Many people who were forced to move, were made to do so at short notice, meaning valuables, documents such as passports, driver licenses and so forth, ended up being left behind.

Finally one point of interest remains. If one looks at the Crimes Act provisions for arson, a person may be liable for up to 14 years imprisonment if they are found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property knowing a risk to life is likely to ensue; 7 years if found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property that they have no interest in. The Act says nothing about providing for someone found guilty of multiple instances in either case.

With warm weather forecast today, one hopes that fire wise it ends up being a damn sight less eventful than 13 February 2017 and the days following were.

New Zealand outlook for 2018

After such a turbulent year as 2017 turned out to be in New Zealand, it must be tempting to throw out the proverbial manual on writing such articles as this and wing it. After all, who knew on 01 January 2017 that Jacinda Ardern would be Prime Minister? Who knew that the flip side of this coin would be that Bill English, who probably had every right to think he was going to be the Prime Minister for the new N.Z. Parliamentary term, despite having the largest party in Parliament would be relegated to the Opposition benches.

Who in February 2017 with scrub fires blazing on the Port Hills above Christchurch could have foreseen the unbelievably wet, cold and stormy winter that would follow with Christchurch ending the year with 127% of its annual rainfall having fallen?

In fairness I don’t think anyone could have really predicted any of this. And so it is on that note with both curiosity and trepidation that I make my predictions for the year 2018 in New Zealand.

The remainder of the first 100 days will be as rocky as those already gone for the new Labour Government But with them gone, I think the Government will find a bit of a delayed honeymoon starting to set in as people see that the minority Government is capable of making serious changes and the the first ones start to take effect. Issues such as the financial ambitions of this Government will continue to be a source of ammunition for National, whilst Labour and the Greens will be able to counter by pointing out National’s disregard for social issues.

Areas where Labour are already starting to have an impact are earthquake insurance as the number of Christchurch residents waiting to sort out their claims continues diminishing ever so slowly. Earthquake Minister Megan Woods has sounded the call to action in a way that one would have expected National to do in 2012-13.

With environmental concerns around electronic waste, plastics, climate change and loss of biodiversity growing, Labour and the Greens have a chance to stamp our authority on environmental issues once and for all. With concerns about fresh water quality and supply, the lack of investment in non-road based transport, there is also scope for New Zealand First to get stuck in with regional development.

The dodgy state of international affairs might put off many diplomats, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters will have opportunities to push New Zealand’s case at the United Nations with refugees. They will also be able to match our rhetoric as a nation not believing in armed aggression with support for issues such as the Iranian nuclear deal; resuming peace talks between Israel and Palestine and defusing the North Korean crisis before it explodes.

An area of surprise might be criminal justice. Having watched the explosion of dairy robberies under the previous Government as criminal elements seek tobacco or ways to fund their next drug hit, Justice Minister Andrew Little has a chance to go one up on National failure to act in 9 years.

Politics aside, I expect New Zealand to do well at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, as well as at the para games to follow.  Medals will be won in things such as the cycling, the net ball, and in the pool. The Black Caps will continue to perform well in the cricket, including getting key wins against England and Pakistan. The All Blacks will find themselves trying to address ongoing concerns about sexism in their outfit and will lose a critical match.

Social issues that will rark us up will be without doubt:

  1. The road toll
  2. Crime
  3. Mental health – there might be a new Government, but there are still plenty of people stuck in situations with no one prepared to help them
  4. Scaremongering – or rather the complete misunderstanding of the intention of scientists involved in natural hazards research telling us about their latest findings and then being accused of scaremongering

Enjoy 2018.

Time for E.Q.C. inquiry

During the campaign, Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern and Labour made a slew of promises regarding the Christchurch earthquake recovery and the role of the lead agencies involved. Whilst the Canterbury Earthquake Authority has since been dismantled, the Earthquake Commission, the other major Government agency involved – overwhelmed and somewhat leaderless since 2010 – has fought a losing battle coping with the complexity of the civilian rebuild.

The incoming Minister for Christchurch Earthquake Recovery, Megan Woods, has stated her desire to hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the failure of the Earthquake Commission. The Commission which has oversight for the repairs to properties damaged in the 2010-11 earthquake sequence told media that she “absolutely wants one to be held.

This is long overdue. It should not have taken a change of Government in Wellington to bring about something that many have been demanding for several years. Despite having largely finished the settling of civilian claims, the Earthquake Commission has since been found significantly wanting in signing off on repair work done. Many of the claimants have come back to their properties after work was supposed to have been completed to find defective repairs or in some cases work that was meant to be done, not being done at all.

When former Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee was appointed to the role in September 2010, following the initial magnitude 7.1 earthquake, the Earthquake Commission was swamped by claims from the quake which totalled N.Z.$4 billion. Only a fraction of those had been processed when the 22 February 2011 earthquake hit. The claims blew out to over 200,000 and totalled N.Z.$35 billion, rising to N.Z.$40 billion with the damaging 13 June 2011 aftershocks.

Although Mr Brownlee made significant effort to get the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and E.Q.C. working together, there were common problems – a lack of communication, unwanted Ministerial intervention, a lack of transparency in the organizations and accusations of nepotism. Unfortunately a degree of truth existed to all of these with the Chief Executives of both E.Q.C. and C.E.R.A. coming in for damning attention. To his credit, the C.E. of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Roger Sutton fell on his sword after realizing the damage his behaviour had done. Mr Sutton had gained respect in September 2010 for his outstanding leadership of Orion, the lines company responsible for the electricity power line network and distribution in Christchurch.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority wound up on 18 April 2016, five years after forming. It had several successes such as overseeing the Christchurch recovery blueprint, but it also had negative events such as the premature demolition of several buildings with heritage classifications on them undermine the more positive work. Its failure to co-ordinate properly with E.Q.C. served to undermine the effective and efficient early stage recovery.Whether or not any Royal Commission of Inquiry seeks to uncover who did what is another story altogether. Let us hope it does, for the ability to find out how E.Q.C.’s involvement in Christchurch got to where it is, depends on this.

Remembering Passchendaele – New Zealand’s bloodiest battle – 100 years on

Individual World War 1 battles have all come to represent one facet or another of everything that is wrong with the war. The Somme, in 1916 for example was a wastage of lives on both sides that rocked the high commands on both sides. Gallipoli was about strategic mistakes in a foreign land that was little understood. The Nivelle Offensive taught the French that if one didn’t look after their soldiers, mutiny was a certainty.

Passchendaele came about as part of a plan to take German submarine bases on the Belgian coast and avoid a French withdrawal whilst they recovered from the Nivelle Offensive. It followed the spectacularly bloody year of 1916 where battles at Verdun and the Somme had taken over 2 million Allied and German casualties between them including 1.5 million deaths. The Germans had adopted the strategy of bleeding the French to death, whilst the Allies – the British in particular wanted to push Germany back through a series of attacks that would force a German withdrawal in one spot and then resume in another spot.

But Passchendaele became remembered as much for the muddy quagmire that was the ground in a salient around the town of Ypres as it was for the men who lost their lives there. In fact it was said that if the Germans and the Allies were in agreement about anything to do with Passchendaele, it was how much they detested the conditions in which they would have to fight.

No sooner had the artillery stopped churning the fields up, the heavens opened. Rain – days and days of it – poured down on soldiers in trenches, in dugouts, in shell holes and bunkers. Cold and wet, with an unrelenting enemy only a few hundred totally inhospitable metres away, was there a more abjectly miserable battle in World War 1? Around and in the town of Passchendaele – which was completely destroyed – 16 weeks of fighting saw the Allies nearly break the German front but at dreadful cost – in a single day on 12 October 1917, 900 New Zealanders were killed which remains our bloodiest ever day in the field of military operations. 240,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, 8,000 French and around 260,000 Germans lost their lives across the four months of the battle.


Public not trusting emergency evacuation warnings

Civil Defence are concerned that people are becoming blase about disaster evacuation warnings. This particularly pertains to tsunami warnings because of the absence of a damaging tsunami event striking New Zealand. Social media critics are claiming that Civil Defence cry wolf over evacuation alerts and some are engaging in the dangerous and irresponsible practice of sowing division that makes people uncertain in times when certainty is necessary.

But one day a damaging tsunami will occur. The ones that have happened in recent decades have fortunately arrived at times in New Zealand when the tide was out far enough that the waves lost all of their energy making up ground in the tidal zone, or more likely were never going to be very large in the first place and – high tide or not – were simply out of energy when they got to New Zealand.

But picture this. A major earthquake has hit the South American west coast on the tectonic plate boundary off the Chilean coast. A Pacific wide tsunami warning has been issued. The waves will start hitting New Zealand about 13-15 hours from now. The largest wave comes ashore in Chile 10 metres high and causes heavy loss of life and damage.

The tide is coming in in Lyttelton when the first warnings are issued about with about 10 hours leeway. The waves will begin to strike on a rising tide. Based on computer modelling the waves are likely to reach 2-3 metres. Over the next several hours the warnings are refined as data comes in. Major damage has been done along the west coast of South America as far north as Colombia and there are waves heading for Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji.

People are generally complying with the authorities evacuation advice. Despite the confusion about arrival times and wave size, people accept that a warning has been issued and they need to move to safer ground.

But on social media, disgruntled people are accusing Civil Defence of crying wolf. They say past tsunami’s turned out to be nothing and this one will be nothing as well – why should they worry?

There are some basic rules about tsunami’s that everyone needs to know:

  • There is MORE than one wave. Some have up to 8
  • The first wave is RARELY the biggest. The 1960 Chilean tsunami was triggered by a massive earthquake and the third wave was the biggest
  • The topography of the ocean floor means every tsunami behaves differently – is it for example a long narrow bay with a shallow dipping sea bed? In that case you will probably see the waves coming sometime before they get to you. Or is it an open beach with a steep drop off? In that case the waves will not be obvious until it is too late and hit the coast with significant speed that you will not be able to outrun
  • Do NOT go back in between waves as you won’t have time to get away. In tsunami events elsewhere this has cost people their lives
  • Be prepared to be gone for several hours
  • Stay away from coastal water features such as river mouths, estuaries and lagoons lest you get cut off