15 Feb 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle: Fire and Emergency gives update after firefighter trapped in Muriwai slip

8:49 am on 15 February 2023

Fire and Emergency continues to search for a volunteer firefighter caught in a landslide at Muriwai on Monday night, removing a large quantity of soil and debris and deconstructing a house piece by piece.

The firefighter was checking flooding in a property on Motutara Road in Muriwai when the property was hit by another house that collapsed during the widespread winds and rains unleashed by Cyclone Gabrielle.

A second firefighter who was in the property at the time got out and was taken to hospital with critical injuries.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) was yesterday using drones to search for the volunteer firefighter.

The Urban Search and Rescue crew's operations had ceased on Tuesday evening because it was unsafe.

On Wednesday morning, crews were assessing the situation and would continue looking for the missing firefighter.

FENZ chief executive Kerry Gregory said the other firefighter who was in the collapsed Muriwai property is Craig Stephens and he is in a critical but stable condition in hospital.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) chief executive Kerry Gregory (centre) gives an update on the Muriwai incident, where two brigade volunteers became trapped after a house collapsed during Cyclone Gabrielle.

FENZ chief executive Kerry Gregory (right) and USAR operations manager Craig Monrad. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

They were respecting the privacy of families, he said, adding they would not be releasing the name of the trapped firefighter at this stage.

"It's devastating, the brigade is really reeling as you would expect," Gregory said.

"All of our brigades are very much like families, so it's like losing a family member. So it's going to be a long healing process for brigades, because we don't lose firefighters every day. This is really a rare event for us."

FENZ deputy national commander Stephanie Rotorangi said she was conscious it was a devastating time while people waited for news in Muriwai, but it was important to take a coordinated approach to what was being done there.

"With our technical rescues, in Muriwai and across the country, much is done to ensure time is of the essence, however, they are very precise operations on the ground."

They would be assessing land stability across the site, and there would be drones, heavy machinery and specialists to undertake work if conditions permitted, she said.

A house hit by a landslide in Muriwai

A house hit by a landslide in Muriwai. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

National Urban Search and Rescue operations manager Craig Monrad said they were using various methods to try and locate where the trapped firefighter might be, including thermal imaging, a K9 dog, and listening devices.

"There was a house that was actually deconstructed, piece by piece, and the landslide around ... 2000 cubic metres of soil has been removed to actually try and get into that location.

"So we're talking a large quantity of debris and soil has to be removed safely, because everything that gets removed has an impact on the work site and the safety."

Gregory said: "The last thing we want is to make the situation worse and more difficult."

"The longer the search goes on for the firefighter, we've got grave concerns for the safety of our firefighter."

"Our teams out there on the ground ... no one has given up hope."

Meanwhile, other properties on Motutara Road were evacuated too after the slip, and Auckland Council's emergency management team on Tuesday asked property owners in the worst-affected parts of Muriwai to consider their own safety and stay out of their homes for the time being.

Updates on other regions

Fire and Emergency on Tuesday said that it had received 1800 storm-related incident calls in 24 hours.

National Urban Search and Rescue operations manager Craig Monrad said more than 100 search and rescue technical experts were operating across the country.

FENZ deputy national commander Stephanie Rotorangi said the number of calls across the country were steady overnight, focus on Tairāwhiti, Hawke's Bay, but there have been communication difficulties in both those regions.

Emergency staff have reverted to satellite phones for communications at times, Rotorangi said.

While the weather may dissipate over the coming hours, the effects were extensive, she said.

Rotorangi said calls have remained steady - about 1700-1800 storm related calls nationally.

In terms of Hawke's Bay, it was too early for numbers, but calls did seem to ease or be steady overnight, she said.

It could be either because conditions were easing or because communications were problematic, she said.

Napier, Hastings and Wairoa were isolated and it was hard to get a gauge on the full impact in rural areas, Rotorangi said.

"Our concern is not only the jobs we have on the books, but the jobs we don't know about yet ... I have confidence teams will be undertaking those assessments," she said.

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