A HAPPIER OCCASION: Sue and Craig at their daughter Kaitlin’s wedding at the same venue, exactly a month before the fire.

AFTER 30 years as a firefighter, former Whakatane man Craig Davies wasn’t expecting the biggest fire he has been involved with to happen right on his doorstep.

He and wife Sue have lived on the outskirts of Nelson for 20 years, where Craig is senior station manager at Nelson Fire Station. But when the Nelson bush fire – the biggest firefighting operation ever seen in New Zealand – began on February 5, rather than racing to the fire, the fire looked like it might come to him.

Located on the Moutere Highway, just two kilometres from the northern front of the fire in Eves Valley, Craig and Sue’s lifestyle property was right on the edge of the evacuation area.

“We’re the last house before the fire not to be evacuated out,” Craig says. When the fire broke out, his backyard seemed the logical place to set up a staging area for the battle to come.

“We got the call at about 10 o’clock on Tuesday night (February 5) from my area commander, asking us if I knew of an area around us they could use as a forward control point. So around 10.30 that night we were out there breaking down fences so we could get them all in.

“We had 22 helicopters in there. We had the command base, the police, the ambulance. We had all the people feeding everyone with big tents all set up in there. Big water tankers, a couple of hundred personnel from rural fire, air ops – so it was a big set up.”

His wife, Sue, who also hails from Whakatane, took the lead in making sure everyone was taken care of.

“She spent the first 24 hours up,” says Craig. “Feeding and watering everyone, baking and just looking after everyone who came to our place before the infrastructure got set up.

Since then she’s been co-ordinating a lot of the food deliveries and making sure a lot of the stuff gets to the right places.

“There’s been a lot of people donating stuff for the relief effort, but a lot of the time it doesn’t go to the right areas so Sue’s been looking after that and she’s been doing a fantastic job.”

The couple also provided accommodation for many of the fire crew members. “All the accommodation was full so we had some of the crews staying here. We’ve had crews from Dunedin and Christchurch here. One of the area commanders is still staying with me.

“We’ve had crews in and out all day. I’ve gone through about 40 litres of home brew. Yeah, they’ve drunk me dry on my home brew, so that’s good.”

Craig started as a firefighter at Whakatane Volunteer Fire Brigade, which he still describes as the “best brigade in the world”. “They’re great. I’ve got a lot of support from them.”

He became employed by Fire and Emergency New Zealand (then called New Zealand Fire Service) in 1988, serving in Kawerau for 12 years. He has been at the Nelson station for most of the past two decades, where he become senior station manager nearly four years ago.

The Nelson fire is not the first high-profile emergency he has been involved in. The biggest of these was the Christchurch earthquake. However, he says that as an urban firefighter he has never been involved in a bush fire of this size.

“Although we’re Fire and Emergency New Zealand, we’re on the urban side of it. So we’ve got the shiny fire engines driving around the streets. But we are big-time involved with this one. This is the biggest thing we’ve all been involved with by miles. It’s huge.

“We’ve got people everywhere. We’ve got a big tent city set up and the army’s here feeding everybody.”

When Eastern Bay Life spoke to Craig last week the fire was largely under control and crews were focusing on dampening down hot spots and waiting for the next outbreak.

Craig says the big job now was clearing the evacuated properties to make sure they were safe for people to go back in.

“Everything is tinder dry. It’s the driest I’ve seen it in all the years I’ve been here. We had a big dry in 2001, but this is way drier than that. It’s just so dry, we are just waiting for another one.

“One thing about it though, As Whakatane people will appreciate – those who were back in the ’87 earthquake and the recent Edgecumbe floods – it does pull the community together really well.

“Everybody’s been feeding us and watering us, looking after us, and we can’t do our jobs without that, so that’s been fantastic.”