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Firefighters were sent home early from Christchurch fire response, union says (Video)

The Firefighters Union say they could have saved 10 of the 11 homes.

Experienced firefighters were sent home at a crucial point in the Christchurch fire response, causing the loss of 10 homes, their union says.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union Secretary Derek Best has called for an independent inquiry.

He said firefighters were sent home for 90 minutes at nightfall on Monday after they had contained but not extinguished the fire.

Just an hour and a half later they were called back to the scene, but it was too late.

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"The order to stand down was given at nightfall in day one, leaving career firefighters frustrated, bewildered and disappointed," Best said.

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"The fire was left to burn out of control and the frustrated firefighters could see the flames from their stations.

"Ninety minutes later, they were called back and the fire had really got going well. Ninety minutes is quite a long time for a fire to get a good head of steam."

"They were really frustrated and quite angry - because this is their home town."

Best said their return saved a further six homes from destruction.

But firefighters had told him with confidence they believed the fire could have been extinguished had they not left, saving 10 of the 11 homes destroyed during the week.

"While the fire was large it was not really a large bush fire in terms of what they might get in somewhere like Australia.

"People over there must be able to properly deal with smaller incidents like this."

He said an inquiry was needed not just into the fire services but into the entire disaster response.

"Really the same issues from the Christchurch earthquake are still present."

Steve Turek, fire region commander for New Zealand Fire Service and Douglas Marshall, principal rural fire officer at Selwyn District Council said in a statement: "The Port Hills fire is one of the most complex in recent years.

"It has required firefighting on a number of fronts, requiring urban, rural and aerial tactics. All firefighters have worked very hard in tough conditions.

"In incidents of this size and nature, rural and urban firefighters will respond together. Decisions are made under a clear command and control structure amongst rural and urban fire officers based on a number of factors, but there is always a clearly agreed lead on all fire grounds.

"Safety is always a key factor in determining where firefighters should be placed. In the Port Hills fires, terrain, wind conditions and heat intensity have meant extra caution must be taken around how close firefighters can be to the fire.

"All large fires have an operational review undertaken after the fire has been fully extinguished. The purpose of that review is to evaluate the response and identify any opportunities for further improvement. 

"For now, our focus is on putting put the fires.

"We are very proud of the commitment and huge effort put in by firefighters, community volunteers and the many other agencies supporting the response."

Civil Defence's Christchurch controller John Mackie had said earlier criticism regarding the emergency response would be addressed later.

"The structures and the systems we currently have in place, they may not be ideal but there's a lot of people working hard out there.

"Criticism doesn't help engagement of those volunteers who have put in huge hours in the last four-five days and it's not their day job."

Early Valley Rd homeowner Ken McKenzie believed the fire could have been stopped further up, saving the two houses on his road that were lost.

"If action had been taken quicker and we'd got more resources to the site . . . it should have been able to be stopped before it headed towards town.

"If they got helicopters and bulldozers in, it could have been stopped. The issue I have is pretty much the organisation, the level above – there's something drastically wrong."

On Wednesday, Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee slammed aspects of the emergency response and said he was "not at all happy" about the delay in declaring a local state of emergency and communication between officials.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel denied local officials had been too slow to declare a state of emergency, but conceded there had been "a bit of a breakdown in communication".

Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne said a new agency, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, would co-ordinate all firefighting activity from July.

A Budget allocation of $303 million will be spent on merging the New Zealand Fire Service, the National Rural Fire Authority and "the fire functions of 40-plus rural fire authorities".

"There will no longer be any poor relations within the fire services of this country," Dunne said.

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