It is a “minor miracle” no one was seriously hurt or killed in the fire that tore through Lake Ohau Village on Sunday, Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher says.
Mr Kircher has praised emergency service personnel and Ohau residents for their swift action and bravery in the face of the fire, which began at 3.15am on Sunday, and destroyed more than 40 homes and covered an area of 5500ha.
“The whole situation could have been much, much worse,” Mr Kircher said.
“The fact we have got through this without any fatalities and injuries is a minor miracle.
“Everyone did what they were supposed to do, everyone was looking out for each other and making sure neighbours got out, breaking windows where necessary.
“There was a lot of bravery going on as the flames were getting closer and closer.”
Mr Kircher said Ohau resident Craig Ovenden was the last to leave the village after making sure everyone got out – and he had to drive through flames to escape.
Residents and holidaymakers were evacuated to a welfare centre in Twizel, where Mr Kircher travelled to on Sunday morning.
“It was all very surreal, there was certainly a lot of mixed emotions .. just like any situation where people have a lot of concern and don’t know what will happen and don’t know when they will find out,” he said.
“There were people in all states, just wearing what they had thrown on.”
Mr Kircher thanked the firefighters who had battled the blaze all week, many of whom were volunteers, for their bravery.
“The many firefighting crews that have been there from across the region have been amazing,” he said.
“And the helicopter crews that have been in there battling flames – it [was] some pretty amazing flying.”
There had been a huge outpouring of support from the wider community, he said. People from around the Waitaki district and the country had offered everything from clothing to accommodation in the aftermath of the disaster.
“Certainly there is a lot of sympathy out there for what has happened to the good people of Ohau.
“There are a lot of people wanting to assist.”
The Waitaki District Council was now working to co-ordinate the clean-up, and working with the Insurance Council to coordinate the insurance issues relating to the fire.
Some residents had already started to talk with builders and were in discussions with their insurance companies, he said.
Insurance assessors were able to access the area from Wednesday.
Chorus, Network Waitaki and Council staff were also assessing the damage to critical infrastructure
“We want to get people back in as soon as possible and as soon as it is safe to do so,” Mr Kircher said.
“The hard work is just starting with planning the clean-up.”
Mr Kircher has established a mayoral relief fund to provide support to impacted residents. Civil Defence minister Peeni Henare announced this week the Government would contribute $100,000 to the fund.