I don’t remember how or when I found out, but somewhere between getting to Melbourne‘s Tullamarine Airport and getting in the taxi to go home in Christchurch, I absorbed some brief information about a couple of fires on the Port Hills, the hills behind my home city. One of the people I shared the taxi shuttle with had been on the opposite side of the plane and she had seen the fires illuminating the dark night sky as the plane approached the runway. It was after 1am when I got to bed, and I gave it no thought, falling asleep ahead of work later that morning. As I head towards the Port Hills from home to work, I was aware of some smoke in the distance on the opposite side of the hills to the city and helicopters flying nearby, but there otherwise wasn’t much to see. Aside from the occasional murmur from people coming into work, and some road closures announced on the hills to keep gawkers at bay, little concern was suggested.
That evening after work, I could see there was going to be a beautiful evening and dusk so I decided to head through Lyttelton tunnel and drive round to Governor’s Bay in order to park up and watch the colours that I suspected might be made through the smoke as the sun lowered. From this side of the hills it was possible to see separate fires in the bush on the hillside, although there was little in the way of flames, just smoke billowing up from the tree line, and helicopters moved around with water buckets suspended below. I was far from the only one parked up watching the evening light fall over Lyttelton Harbour. Despite being a Tuesday, every pull-up on the road was full of cars. And whilst I knew that below that smoke, the bushland of the hills was being destroyed, I found the scene quite beautiful. I know how regenerating a bush fire can be, and whilst destructive, I thought nothing more of it, snapping photos as the light changed, then driving home as it grew dark.
But the next morning things were different. I hadn’t seen any news on the Tuesday, and now on the Wednesday, I discovered that one of the helicopters fighting the fires had crashed the previous afternoon, killing the pilot. Even to this day they are yet to announce the trigger of the fires, but with one of them starting at a car park on the hills, I am convinced it was caused by an idiot throwing a cigarette or dumping glass that has reflected the sunlight. And now somebody had died. Not only that, but the fires were anything but under control, and they continued to move nearer and nearer to the hill suburbs of Christchurch. The smoke was by now very obvious on my commute to work and from my home the smoke hung over the house.
By the Thursday, things were getting more serious. The two fires were now one large out of control fire, and people we knew were being evacuated. The recently opened Adventure Park, a fantastic addition to the post-earthquake city, was now at risk of being damaged, and homes were now being destroyed. That evening I could see flames from my driveway as the fire had moved to Victoria Park, a popular recreational spot. It burned for many days, with some people out of their houses for 1-2 weeks. The Adventure Park remains closed still with no known time of reopening. The buildings at the base remained untouched, but large sections of the trees in the park as well as the chairlift were in the fire zone.
I have been up at the summit several times since the fires were extinguished and the roads reopened. Over 2000 hectares of land burned, and the hills now look very different. The spot on the summit where one of my best friends got married a few years ago is now black. But whilst there’s a lot of ground to be cleared, areas at risk of slip to be fortified, and houses to be rebuilt, there was already a lot of fresh green grass budding through the blackened soil within a couple of weeks of the fire. Having gone back up the hill again a couple of weeks ago, the rate of grass regrowth was amazing. Out of the ashes comes growth. And if there’s anything Christchurch is good at, it is regenerating after a disaster.