Last week, Christchurch’s Port Hills were on fire. Word is that an electrical fault started it, sparks igniting the golden grasses.
I could see the fire for nearly the whole week at work.
This was the first time I’ve seen a wildfire. Plumes of smoke rose high.
That Wednesday, I had to breathe shallowly as smoke settled over the farm for the last 40 minutes of the work day as I moved K-line irrigation. (The smoke could have come from the Port Hills fire, or it could have come from another fire inland.) The sun shone in a cloudless sky, yet every time I turned the four-wheeler to the west, grey dominated.
Eerie contrasts between smoke and buildings filled with sunset dominated.
On the back roads driving home, I passed an operating irrigation rig.
That’s a good picture, I thought but continued on another 100 metres before I said, “Right, I’m going to regret not stopping.” I paused on the grass to the left of the road, waited for cars to pass, and then pulled a u-turn, heading for the rig.
That morning, I had thought, I should take my Fujifilm camera with me, without really knowing why. Now, I figuratively kicked myself because I only had the malfunctioning camera on my phone.
I tried to snap a couple of shots. One at least told the story.
But there were too many amazing elements going on that weren’t captured right. I was frustrated with my phone and only took two pictures.
I left that spot. Driving back north, I saw prospective shot after prospective shot.
Finally, I said, “I’m getting my camera.”
So I drove home, picked up my camera and extra battery and drove the 20 minutes back south to the irrigation rig, nearly to where I work. I was a storm chaser.
Then, I shot 96 irrigation rig photos.
I hear a lot about water use here, a dry region, and the juxtaposition of an irrigation rig trying to revive a mostly brown pasture, with a bit of grateful green grass poking above the soil, against the burning Port Hills, where helicopters brought water from swimming pools, was striking. The despair of smoke, the near-absence of color, and the hope of a rainbow, the presence of multiple hues, provided more disparity.
The smoke drifted south and west.
I headed north and east, back toward the city and the hills.
Along one road, several people had pulled over to observe the smoke and the helicopters’ efforts to drench the flames.
I joined them to watch the choppers, which could be seen against the smoke if we looked hard enough.
Horses grazed next to the road, unperturbed.
I drove back into town, stopping at the store on my way home.
That night, I walked to the main road and watched the flames dance up the hill.
Smoke trailed dark against navy sky.
From our observation points, we couldn’t feel the heat, smell the scorched earth or see how high the sparks flew. But the glitter of homes and their security lights reminded us of the houses that had been lost already that day. Later, I heard a count of 11 homes burned.
When I thought about my Port Hills trail walk at sunset on a Friday night two or three weeks earlier, the sadness of the fire became all the more real. The views were awesome, and I couldn’t stop and look long enough. I gazed across half the width of the South Island, from the hills to the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps. The sky was vast in that space.
This is a beautiful place that has been through a painful rebuilding process, and now it has been refined by fire.