18 Jan 2017

Coromandel blaze: Family flees through flames

2:54 pm on 18 January 2017

A woman and her four children and grandmother drove through a burning driveway to flee the scrub fire that has devastated an area south of Whitianga.

A monsoon helicopter flies over the remains of a house razed by a scrub fire near Whitianga. At least four houses and several other buildings have burnt to the ground.

Three helicopters with monsoon buckets and about 30 firefighters are tackling the 11ha blaze. Photo: RNZ / Carla Penman

Ten families were evacuated at the height of the fire, which covered 11ha between Kaimarama and Coroglen, and four houses and a commune were destroyed overnight.

The fire has been contained but is not yet out.

One family watched in shock as buildings in the adjacent commune exploded and tried to salvage their own possessions as the fire got closer.

Sam Blofield, whose Comers Road property overlooks the Wilderland organic farm commune, said two workers from there ran up to them yesterday afternoon to raise the alarm.

They watched in shock as the fire engulfed neighbouring land including Wilderland, where people live and work voluntarily.

"They I think have lost a good four or five buildings," Ms Blofield said.

The charred remains of the Wilderland organic commune beside the Whitianga estuary,

The charred remains of the Wilderland organic commune beside the Whitianga estuary. Photo: RNZ / Carla Penman

"They were basically like explosions, probably gas bottles, but we watched all of their houses just one by one blow up in front [of] us, that was quite freaky, really scary."

Ms Blofield, her grandmother and her four children, aged five to 12, went to her mother-in-law's home further away from the fire, but eventually made the decision to leave after rescuing belongings from her home.

One driveway was blocked by fire. Flames licked the route they took.

"We just drove past the fire basically. You could feel the heat through the car. It was so freaky. I've never experienced a bush fire before. It was pretty scary," Ms Blofield said.

"Just the adrenaline to save my children and my grandmother and then knowing what to try to salvage out of your house. It's a pretty crazy sort of feeling."

Her husband and brother-in-law fought the flames overnight, after windy conditions forced firefighters to stand down.

"They didn't stop. We were so worried because it was so dangerous," Ms Blofield said.

"They really did put their lives on the line and the firefighters said there was nothing they could do to make them leave their properties."

The men were lucky they ended up "heroes than victims", she said.

"They were out with their chainsaws and diggers just trying to move as much bush away from the houses, trying to find as much water because it's very limited for water up there. The power went out so no-one's pumps were working."

Instead, they collected water from fish ponds and water tanks.

"My husband, his whole life has been that hill - that's where they've grown up - so they weren't going to move."

Their homes, although smoke damaged, were safe, she said.

Once they were allowed back there would be a big clean-up operation, as the 13-acre property was badly damaged.