Fire in Pigeon Valley
‘This is not another flare up. This is one mean angry fire.’
Words and photos by Robert Trewavas #17037
This was the warning issued to the people of Wakefield and Spring Grove at around 7pm on Thursday, February 7, 2019 as the Nelson Tasman Civil Defence went into high alert. My involvement in the Pigeon Valley Fire had been set in motion back in December 2018 when a surgeon from the Wakefield surgery phoned to inform me that operations on my ear and back had been farmed out to the Wakefield surgery to take the pressure off Nelson Hospital. I was booked in for February 7, which suited me as I was in the parking team for Music in the Mountains at the beginning of the month, and planned to spend a few days in the Nelson Motueka area after the rally.
Late in the afternoon of February 5 I drove from my old home town of Motueka to the McKee Memorial Reserve (TD #6157). I wanted to stay there as it had been closed for months after the big storm a couple of years ago. It has always been my favourite place to stay between Motueka and Nelson, but I haven’t stopped there since the storms. After parking up, I noticed a pall of smoke in the south-east direction and thought I might have to move on, but found out that it was in the Pigeon Valley area, some 18kms away as the crow flies. I spent the night of the 6th at McKee before driving through to Wakefield the next day.
I decided to go the long way, rather than using my usual shortcut which would have put me close to the closed-off areas. I found the Wakefield locals going about their normal duties. The cafes were full of people talking about the fire, but it was a normal sunny Thursday. Nobody was aware Wakefield was about to be evacuated. My operation took an hour and a half and I left with my right ear all wrapped up. I needed to get parked up somewhere before the anaesthetic wore off. My original plan was to stay a few days at Higgins Heritage Park in Pigeon Valley, but due to the fire that was out of the question. I drove the short distance north to Spring Grove reserve and hall (TD#6277).
I parked up behind the hedge and settled in for the night. My anaesthetic was wearing off and my ear and back were starting to let me know they’d had the chop. After dinner I went for a walk, just as the wind changed. The fire flared up and started heading towards Spring Grove. The velocity of this fire was frightening and there’s a big difference between the photo I took at 6.30pm and another at 7pm. I posted some of my photos on the Nelson snippets Facebook page and the editor of the Nelson Mail asked me for a copy. After receiving them she thanked me and signed off with ‘now get out of there’. However the pain from my ear and back meant I was staying put.
By this time I could see a line of flames going hundreds of feet up into the air from a ridge only about 5kms away – the sight was beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Then, Nelson Tasman Civil Defence issued that sharp warning to the Wakefield to Spring Grove residents to prepare to evacuate at short notice: ‘This is not another flare up. This is one mean angry fire’. They then explained how to deal with red hot embers from the fire that could land on properties. This was the turning point for me; I didn’t want red hot embers landing on my motorhome. I made tracks out of there at around 10pm.
The Spring Grove to Brightwater road, the old main road which was usually very quiet at night, was full of people self-evacuating. Most houses were lit up like Christmas trees. Along with yours truly, Spring Grove was on the move. I spent the next few days at my brother’s place in Richmond watching developments. Along with all the residents, Wakefield Health Centre was evacuated on February 8th. I was due for my first check-up on the 11th, which was to take place in Richmond, where the health centre had set up shop, I went there for my check-up and it was business as usual.
It was amazing considering everything they had been through – happy smiles all around. My surgeon lives south of Richmond so he was ok. My nurse was worried about her chooks left behind at home in Wakefield and was looking forward to checking on them. I’m happy to say my check-up went well and all Wakefield residents were allowed to go home at 5pm that night.