13 Oct 2020

Ōhau locals sift through ruins of homes after huge fire

From Checkpoint, 6:06 pm on 13 October 2020

Lake Ōhau residents have begun sifting through the debris of their damaged and destroyed homes in the wake of the devastating fire.

The fire razed much of the village earlier this month, destroying or damaging half the properties and spreading across more than 5500 hectares.

Lake Ōhau Road was today reopened to the outskirts of the village, providing more access to nearby properties.

Driving towards Lake Ōhau village past tussock, farmland and even lush green trees, the extent of the damage is often hidden from view.

Scorched ground and blackened bushes serve as a reminder of the devastating fire, but it's not until you get close to the village that the full - terrible - impact is revealed.

It was the first day media were allowed to walk through the village.

Corrugated iron roofing is scattered around, burnt out cars with only their metal steering wheel, hand brake and skeletons of seats are left behind and stonework chimneys are all that's left of some houses. 

Media were allowed to look at the damage the week after it happened

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

But other houses are untouched, their gardens still flowering, and residents are cleaning ash off the walls with mops.

The Barn at Killin Bed and Breakfast co-owner Hugh Spiers said he doubted any possessions would survive.

"It's those wee things. Those things that you can't rip down to Harvey Norman and buy: your great, great grandmother's school journal, your mum's wedding dress - you can't whip down to the bridal shop and get another one of those, or your great, great granddad's rifle that was sitting on the mantle piece," Spiers said.

"But on reflection of those ... possessions, those memories, I remind myself that we're awesomely lucky that we have everybody around us."

Media were allowed to look at the damage the week after it happened

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

He was working through insurance papers before he could return to his property for a managed visit today.

For a busy bed and breakfast that used to offer a high country high tea with fine china and silver teapots, Spiers said he doubts they'd find a single tea cup left unscathed. 

Last week they managed to find their pet lamb and cat days after they fled the fire

"It must have been so hot. I've got no idea how those wee animals survived. The heat has just melted glass like plastic," he said.

"Anyway we've got the gear, we've got the rakes and ... hopefully as soon as our insurance has released the property to us and the guys have got in to take away some of the structures - there's no structure but there is quite a lot of iron - we can get in to start having a sort of archaeological dig."

Media were allowed to look at the damage the week after it happened

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Recovery manager Lichelle Guyan took media on their first walk through of the village today.

"I don't think you can come here and see this without having a level of emotion. What strikes me every time I come here is how remarkable this community is that everyone made it out. I mean I look at this and I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the people who were in here. You can tell that the heat and the force of the fire must have been ferocious," she said.

Not long after we drove in, the wind started to pick up, rattling the iron.

Media were allowed to look at the damage the week after it happened

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

They wanted to let the residents back in, but only when it was safe and they had power, water and wastewater back up, Guyan said.

"Ōhau is well known for high winds. There are large objects that could easily take off and move, and really they could just hit people and injure people. 

"There are a number of large structures that you can't see from here, but you will be able to see around the village. Some of those look like nothing is holding them up really so if you were in a house that's right beside that structure, that wouldn't be safe so we couldn't open that up."

Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher said so far the plan for the central government's contribution of $100,000 to the mayoral relief fund was to ease the rates burden for residents.

Media were allowed to look at the damage the week after it happened

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Fire and Emergency scientists had been on the ground trying to work out how the fire developed, he said.

"That's going to help not only the rebuild of Lake Ōhau village and its surrounding area, but also in a lot of communities right across New Zealand. What are the plants to have? How do you maintain a landscape so that it's not going to spread fire? 

"You know, some pretty valuable lessons I think are going to come out of this for the long term benefit of New Zealand," Kircher said.

While residents have begun trying to salvage what they can, they still don't know when they'll be allowed to return permanently.