Real Life

Nelson wildfires one year on: ‘I can still remember every part’

A year has passed since the blaze rampaged across the Nelson-Tasman region, but its impact is still keenly felt by those whose lives were upended.
Simon and Liz Ladley

Volunteer firefighter Simon Ladley was pulling out of a friend’s driveway in Puponga at the top of the South Island when his pager went off: a tinder-dry hillside southwest of Nelson had erupted in flames.

He’d spent a long weekend fishing off Farewell Spit with his son Matthew (15) and was a two-and-a-half hour drive away from the blaze near his Pigeon Valley home.

He reckoned the fire would be well and truly dealt with by the time he got there.

“But when I came over the Takaka Hill, I looked at the smoke and looked at my boy and said, ‘They’re not putting that out in a hurry.'”

What started in a field that sunny February afternoon from a wayward spark would explode into the largest wildfire in New Zealand history, with the Nelson-Tasman region put under a state of emergency, and the threat of a potentially deadly inferno forcing the entire population of the nearby town of Wakefield to be evacuated.

A year has passed since the blaze rampaged across 2343ha of mainly pine plantation, but its impact is still keenly felt by those whose lives were upended, fleeing their homes, uncertain if there would be anything left to return to.

Scary images from the 2019 fires.

Simon’s wife Liz, who has lived in the Pigeon Valley Rd home for seven years, tells the Weekly every day was a rollercoaster of emotions.

“I can just about remember every part of every day that first week it was going on,” says Liz (45).

“When we were evacuated on the Friday, we had tried to be prepared but I don’t think we really were for when it actually happened.

“We were all scattered. Simon stayed here, I went to my mother’s in Tahuna with the dogs and cat, and Matthew went to a friend’s place in Richmond so that he could still go to school.

“Being here was scary, but you could see what was going on around you. Being away from home when we were evacuated was even harder. We weren’t together, I didn’t know where Simon was or what he was doing and I couldn’t see what was happening to our home or our community.

“There are many times I think back to it. It was surreal but very real at the same time.”

Reflects Simon, “There was a real risk to Wakefield and I don’t think a lot of people understand that. The fact that we never lost a dwelling on this side is really quite amazing.

“Hot stuff was travelling at least 2km and landing on our deck and in our section and it was still smouldering. I really don’t know how we got away without damage.”

Adding to the stress of the week was that their daughter Taila (24) was heavily pregnant and had just moved into a new home inside the evacuation zone.

Almost a fortnight ahead of her due date, she gave birth to the Ladleys’ first grandchild, Alex.

“It was a very busy week, but he was like the little diamond in the rough,” says Liz, smiling.

With Simon (44) jumping into 12-hour shifts to help protect Wakefield from the approaching firestorm, while making sure people and properties were safe and delivering food to firefighters on the frontline, the show of generosity remains one of the high points of this dark episode.

“People’s generosity was unbelievable,” Liz recalls.

“I’ve never seen so much food delivered, with people saying, ‘Here, take it, do what you can with it.'”

“Before the village was evacuated, there was a constant stream of mums and kids and the elderly bringing in food for the firefighters.

“There’s still some notes on the fridge in the fire station from young kids, some really heart-wrenching, thanking people for their support, saying, ‘You’re my heroes,'” Simon says, still humbled by the donations and gratitude.

“As soon as a community is in need, New Zealand rallies together. At the end of the day, we’re a nation of helpers.”

He adds that his employer, Powertech Nelson, generously paid him for the week even though he only turned up at work for a couple of hours between firefighting shifts.

Scarred hills near the couple’s home show the damage.

The couple, who had a stark reminder of their hellish week over the New Year when the skies turned orange from the Australian bushfires, say they’ll be taking a few moments to reflect on the week that ash rained from the sky and they wondered if they’d have a house to return to.

“For me I’ll certainly be taking a moment of reflection on the fifth, when it started,” says Liz, now secretary of the Wakefield Volunteer Fire Brigade.

“The smoke haze we’ve had from Australia is a very real reminder of what we were looking at out of our own windows.

“It’s very scary that things are getting dry again. It brings back some anxiety.”

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