5 Oct 2020

Lake Ōhau locals describe devastating fire damage

From Checkpoint, 5:12 pm on 5 October 2020

A resident who was among those allowed back into their lakeside community in the Mackenzie Basin today says the huge fire has hit the area like "a nuclear holocaust".

The Ōhau fire ripped through the small community in the early hours yesterday - destroying at least 20 homes and forcing around 90 people to evacuate.

Hugh and Dwayne, who do not want their surnames revealed, are the owners of The Barn at Killin B&B.

After escaping to Twizel yesterday in just their pyjamas today they were among evacuated residents who travelled in a convoy of buses to see the damage for themselves.

Hugh told Checkpoint the trip was like being in a dream that's turned into a nightmare that was almost impossible to describe. 

"It was quite an emotional trip into the valley. Once we turn off the state highway into our own Lake  Ōhau Road we feel like we're coming home back to our piece of paradise, our happy place.

"But as we rode in on the buses there were just tears and sobs as we could see the trees that were still smouldering  and the grassland was all parched and black and stumpy. Where once had been beautiful tussock it was black and horrible."

Fire damage at Lake Ohau village

Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

Their property is on the other side of Lake Middleton which is a smaller lake beside Lake Ōhau. 

"We couldn't see the flash of red roof that always welcomed us as we were riding down the road ...it wasn't there even through the trees." 

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The property that was popular with those using a cycle trail.  Photo: The Barn at Killin B&B

It was still too hot for the buses to travel into this area this afternoon, but the men are fearing the worst.  

He said it was a special trip because they were with friends and family but it was a shocking sight. 

"It was like a bomb site, like a nuclear holocaust had happened and there were houses that used to be there weren't there and just a big pile of ash."

Fire damage at Lake Ohau village.

Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

He said every now and again there was a house that had been left unscathed. "Nature is a mysterious thing."

Dwayne said he experienced "valleys and peaks" of emotions as he saw the damage. 

On the night of the fire Hugh had visitors staying and lost sight of his father, Chris, who lives with him but was outside mucking around with his Jeep. 

Hugh said his priority was to get the visitors to safety so he was relieved to find out several hours later that his dad had escaped and was further up the valley. 

They managed to grab cellphones and laptops - everything else was left behind. 

"It's a wonder no one perished. It's totally amazing - we are lucky that no one has died. We do have something; we've got each other and our lives." 

Hugh is fifth generation on the land and started the bed and breakfast about four years ago. It was doing really well, he said, and attracted a lot of visitors because it's linked to a cycle track from Mt Cook to Oamaru. 

"It's really special to us. The DNA of Ōhau is in my soul. We're looking forward to the future which we will share again."

Hugh said the support from other New Zealanders had been overwhelming. 

Lake Ohau village after the fire.

Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki