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.

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.

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


Post-earthquake flood woes return in Christchurch

I do not remember though the Heathcote River or the Avon River overflowing as frequently as they seem to now. Significant overflow events have occurred in virtually every year since the earthquakes. Some of the were on relatively insignificant rainfall events such as one in early 2012 which occurred on the back of 90 minutes heavy rain. More serious (considerably more serious to be honest)events occurred in August 2012, June 2013 during a significant winter storm, significant storms in March and April 2014, and finally two storms just week apart in July 2017 (the last one being the one on Friday-Saturday just gone).

I visited both rivers on Saturday to see for myself the extent of the flooding. Both had road closures in place, or would shortly after I passed. The photos in this article are ones I took on a brief drive on Saturday morning to see how bad the flooding was. I deliberately avoided the lower part of both rivers and the estuary because significant road closures were in force at this point and I thought it would just hold up essential traffic.

Avon River (Wairarapa Terrace), R. Glennie

To be fair, it is worse in the lower reaches of both rivers near the estuary, where some parts have dropped by up to 50 centimetres. This means even a big king tide can now cause flooding, without any rain falling. So it was unfortunate then that 2.7m tide, which is the top of the tidal range around Christchurch, was due in Lyttelton at 1515 hours on

Avon River looking upstream, R. Glennie


But we have known about the flood hazard since the quakes. It existed before the 2010-11 earthquake sequence began, but was then largely understood to originate from the Waimakariri River, on whose flood plain the city is located. We have invested millions in reducing the flood risk around Flockton (Floodton)Basin, a low lying area east of the Palms Shopping Centre, where land subsided around the upper reaches of the tidal zone and does not drain easily as a result.

Heathcote River at Tennyson Street, R. Glennie

But it is not just the flooding that is the problem. Following the flooding is sometimes even more stressful as the insurance claims are sorted out, the houses cleaned out and the sanitation made safe again. Often carpet has to be ripped up and electronics replaced.

Heathcote River at Colombo Street, R. Glennie

Perhaps it is time to face an uncomfortable truth. The flood risk has significantly increased in these low lying areas. It is not going to decrease unless dwellings are either raised or moved. Yes it will cause a lot of stress for locals, but one only has to look at the number of times significant flood events have occurred since the earthquakes tells that perhaps these streets should not be occupied, or they can be occupied, but the insurance must be significantly more rigorous.  But one thing is for certain: the flood hazard has changed and we need to adjust accordingly.

French Rainbow Warrior admits guilt, but no apology

It was 32 years in the making. On 10 July 1985 the French Government – until then perceived to be an ally of New Zealand – committed state sanctioned terrorism against New Zealand. The bombing of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior shocked New Zealand and angered nations around the world.

New Zealanders rightfully itched for retribution. The massive Police manhunt for the agents who committed the act of terrorism which sank the Rainbow Warrior and killed Portugese photographer Fernando Pereira managed to catch up with two of the agents, whilst the rest got away. Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart were not admitting much, much less apologizing. Mafart would go on to become Commander of the French Navy Training Centre in Corsica. Prieur would become a Major and later a Colonel in the French Army before taking up a civilian job in human resources.

Now it looks like after 32 years, a French woman who infiltrated Greenpeace and sent intelligence back to France for analysis has been outed as another of the agents used in the attack. Christine Cabon was the youngest of the agents complicit in the attack.

Whilst admitting her complicity in the attack, she says that there is no apology forthcoming. She said she was simply doing what she was trained to do at the time, and it was simply her job.

Such a lack of critical analysis of ones role in the attack will no doubt have come across as a shock to some, even 32 years after the attack, with French and New Zealand relationships now enjoying relative good times – if you can see past Romain Poite’s handling of the British and Irish Lions test against New Zealand at the weekend. I thought there might have been a bit of remorse that an innocent man just doing his legitimate job as a photographer had to die because of the actions of these agents, but none was forthcoming.

New Zealand and France on either side of this act of terrorism have actually gotten on fairly well. New Zealand fought on the side of the French in two world wars and had a hand in the April 1917 Battle of Arras where a major clash against the Germans occurred. New Zealand also contributed R.N.Z.A.F. squadrons to the aerial campaign against the Germans during World War 2

This event though, whether the day after the attack or another 20 years from now, will remain a stain on otherwise good history between the countries. The unapologetic Christine Cabon’s passport should perhaps be stamped with the words “Banned from New Zealand”, along with those of Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart.

Now there is no chance of further prosecutions, however appealing it might be to some. The case is closed. Nothing meaningful is left to be gained.

We should also forgive France. It was a revolting act and an incredibly dumb thing to do, but the French people are remorseful to the highest levels of French politics – only the Front Nationale dreams of resuming nuclear testing and they have been soundly defeated in the recent French Presidential election.

But we should not forget.