16 Feb 2024

'Disaster tourists' are flocking to the Port Hills fire. Why?

3:02 pm on 16 February 2024
Port Hills fire - day three - Kennedys Bush

The fire in Canterbury's Port Hills has been burning since Wednesday afternoon. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Authorities have slammed "disaster tourists" flocking to the Port Hills fire, saying they are obstructing emergency services and distressing residents.

Canterbury police inspector Ash Tabb said on Thursday that people "going into the area to have a look" were making it "very hard" for firefighters moving heavy equipment.

On Friday, he said those onlookers were a "big stress" for residents and reiterated that only "bona fide visitors", such as residents and contractors, should visit the area.

But what drives people to turn up at a fire cordon, or slow down for a look when passing a car crash?

Clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland said while disaster tourism was a new term, it was not a new behaviour - all through history, there was evidence of "interest in the macabre".

Going back hundreds of years, public executions in London used to attract "huge" crowds, with some people even setting up market stalls or bringing the family for a day out.

There was an educational component for some people, Sutherland said.

"They think, 'I've heard about this and I'm really interested to go and see it.'"

The novelty value also drew some in - "This is new, this is happening, let's go have a look" - as well as a sense of being part of the action, or part of something important.

Sutherland said many assumed 'disaster tourists' as a group had dark, narcissistic personality traits, but that was not borne out by the research.

While not everyone was drawn to disaster sites, that did not necessarily infer anything negative about the people who were, he said.

Part of the problem was that "what's a disaster to one may not be a disaster to another", he said.

"I think we would all agree that the fires are a disaster, but is going to see the pyramids in Egypt? Because actually, they're tombs to kings."

Sutherland said people had a "fundamental" interest in death and disaster.

"Everybody rubbernecks and slows down to have a look" when passing a car crash, he said.

"It's almost from a safety perspective - we want to check out things about death because 'gosh, that could affect us'."

As for those flocking to the Port Hills fire, Sutherland said people should try and delay going to see it as much as possible, to give emergency services and residents space.

"Maybe if you could delay it until the fire is pretty much out, you'd still be able to have your curiosity fulfilled, just at a more appropriate time."

Thinking of others was also key for anyone wanting to head to the cordons, he said.

While most residents had been allowed back into their homes as of midday Friday, there were still a number who were waiting anxiously for news.

"Maybe spend just a little bit of time thinking about the current human cost of [the fire] - there are people whose lives and properties are in danger, under threat," Sutherland said.

"Put yourself in their shoes, and maybe that will be enough to resist the urge right now."

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