Wednesday 15 February 2017 won’t be easily forgotten by the people of Cashmere. The fires had started on the summit of the Port Hills on Monday afternoon. By Wednesday morning the focus of fire-fighting was over the hill as the fires pushed down towards Governors Bay. Smoke billowed up and over the top, down over Cashmere. Our home is at the head of Bowenvale Avenue, and by lunchtime the valley was filled with smoke, and ash was drifting. You could hardly see the top of Sugarloaf. The smoke billowed, thickened and spread south; by mid afternoon the entire Port Hills were under the most hideous cloud I’ve ever seen. The colour was indescribable, not grey – a sickening orangey pinky vomit colour.
The wind changed to a fresh easterly, which cleared the smoke and was good news for us in Bowenvale as it pushed the fire away from our valley. But bad news for Cashmere and Westmorland. When darkness fell the helicopters stopped work, and without the monsoon buckets of water falling on them the fires burst up. The flames crossed the road up into our precious trees in Victoria Park. And they pushed down the hill towards the city.
Those living high on the hill were evacuated.
By midnight this was the sight that greeted my family as we fled our house and looked back to the hill – a continuous line of blazing light, from Victoria Park all the way to the south above Halswell. The most terrifying sight of my life.
Some of our church members evacuated, but most stayed put. No one got much sleep, whether or not they were in ‘the line of fire’.
Leona described to me how she sat at her window all night, watching trees burst into flame in the valley above Princess Margaret Hospital. She saw a house completely engulfed in flames, then the flames died away and incredibly the house was untouched by the fire; Leona realised that she had personally installed a watering system around the house!
After the fire, some thoughts …
- Fire is terrifying. It’s a central metaphor for the Christian faith, but what are we messing with?? We love to contain fire, embroider flames on banners. But if God is like fire, God is utterly outside our control, a power that leaves us trembling. The burning bush is not a ‘nice’ logo!
- I did not enjoy evacuating my home. I was shocked at how attached I am to all my stuff, as I went round the house imagining everything being reduced to ash, choosing a special dress, a necklace, a photo album, to stuff in the car, half saying goodbye to every book, bowl and shoe. Today it is all still here, and I wonder how Christ feels about all my stuff, whether I let it get in the way of my heart’s true calling.
- We are all enormously grateful to those brave, faithful men and women who fought the fires on our behalf. How hard they have worked, volunteers alongside professionals, in the trucks and in the helicopters. Our Parish & Presbytery Administrator, Gail, has been at the fire station much of the week, dishing out tea and sammies and smiles. Her sons have been out facing the smoke and flames, every hour of day and night they can.
And as for the helicopters, they have swooped over our heads in every hour of daylight. As I write this early on Friday morning I can hear them starting up again, for the 5th day. Leona described how 4 of them danced in synch to stop a leading edge of flame, dropping their water with precision, immediately flying back for more water. Those men are the heroes of the hour.
One of them gave his life for us. Stephen Askin. Son of Baptist pastors. He spoke at my son’s youth camp last year. What kind of man loves fighting fire from a tiny metal box hovering in the air?? What kind of woman lets her husband do that?? All I know is, that is closer to Jesus’s words in Mark 8:35 than I’ve ever been or want to be! “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, with save it.”
So, today, after the fire, our church will care for our people, be there for others. We’re part of a good network and response systems. I’m thinking a community barbecue would be good. But there’s not really much we can do.
Here is my prayer for my people (from Psalm 61):
Hear our cry, O God!
You listen, you hear
the anguish of those whose homes are ash,
the loss of a good, good, brave man,
our tiredness, our stress,
our cry of fear.
Our hearts are faint, O God.
Lead us to the rock that is higher than the flames.
You are our refuge, the strong tower against our fears.
We crawl into your safety in the shelter of your wings.
Your steadfast love and faithfulness watches over us,
you have carried us through.
So we will praise your name,
and find courage and strength in you,
this day, and tomorrow, and the day after that.