Forestry slash engulfs cemetery

Questions will be asked about why slash was left to sit above central Queenstown after flood waters sent felled logs hurtling into the resort town.

Queenstown’s state of emergency landslip and flood event yesterday was caused by nature but made worse by human interventions and the town’s mayor concedes there is a lot that needs to be looked at once the response is over.

A huge landslip of forestry slash, including stacks of large wilding pine logs felled by Skyline Queenstown Gondola, was responsible for much of the damage caused to Queenstown, including its historic cemetery at the base of the gondola hill.

The cemetery was engulfed and some gravestones damaged by the deluge.

It comes as many other parts of the South continued to be affected by flooding yesterday, roads being closed in Southland, Central Otago and South Otago, and the extent of the cleanup work required became clearer.

Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Glyn Lewers made the emergency declaration at 6.33am yesterday, following 100 people being evacuated from 20 homes after a river of timber, rocks and silt flowed down Brecon St towards the town centre from the gondola hill.

Some residents remained evacuated last night.

Queenstown recorded 87mm of rain in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday, equivalent to a month’s rain in a day, the wettest day in 24 years, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) said.

The event closed Queenstown Primary School and businesses in the immediate vicinity, including the gondola, which suffered damage to its base building.

The aftermath of the forestry slash which plunged down Bob’s Peak and finished up in Queenstown...
The aftermath of the forestry slash which plunged down Bob’s Peak and finished up in Queenstown Cemetery yesterday.
As the cleanup operation swung into gear and geotechnical engineers assessed the damage yesterday, Mr Lewers told the Otago Daily Times the question why there were large logs stacked on the steep hill was something the council would "have to look at" once the emergency was over.

"There has been correspondence [with Skyline] previous to this event, but we’ll wait until after we get through this initial stage and then we’ll look at how that was dealt with beforehand and afterwards."

Skyline Gondola chief executive Geoff McDonald said the trees were felled on land it leased off the council, in works to widen the gondola corridor to reduce fire risk, as part of a major redevelopment.

The stacked logs were waiting to be removed off the hill, but the timber had been "sitting there for a long period of time", he said.

"We have had a forestry operation on that hill for coming close to two years now and it’s a really difficult area with ... [steep] terrain.

"But we have an accredited [logging contractor] operator whose operation is peer reviewed by an independent expert ... It’s a very contained and well-managed forestry operation."

Arrowtown’s Lakes District Museum director David Clarke called the damage to the cemetery, which contained graves of gold rush settlers, "an unfortunate circumstance" and hopefully one that would not be repeated.

"I’m very sad. When you’re doing this tree felling, you’ve got to get it right."

Mr Lewers said he would also be looking into the communications failure yesterday when flood-hit residents were directed to a temporary evacuation centre which turned out to be a locked-up church.

St Peter’s Church vicar Dr Michael Godfrey. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
St Peter’s Church vicar Dr Michael Godfrey. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
The council said an evacuation centre had been set up at St Peter’s Anglican Church to manage the 100 people who had had to leave their homes because of the flooding.

However, that was news to vicar Dr Michael Godrey, who said he first learned about the church’s designation when he saw an emergency alert in the morning.

He is based between Queenstown and Arrowtown and had the only key to open the church.

"Nobody was there. It was locked."

He had not been contacted by the council and police could not tell him anything when he contacted the station.

"My worry is ... I’ve worked in emergency services and I’d have some concern, if this was a bit more serious, what would be going on."

A group of Queenstown residents evacuated from Reavers Lane from the Bob’s Peak torrent said they were also confused because of a lack of communication from the council.

They first evacuated to the Queenstown Memorial Hall, where the council had set up an evacuation centre, and then shifted to the Holiday Inn along with other evacuees about midnight.

However, they were left confused about where to go yesterday morning.

"We don’t know what is going on."

So instead they have paid for another three nights’ stay at the Holiday Inn.

Regarding the communication breakdowns, Mr Lewers said once the emergency was over the council would "look at that and assess it and say ‘hey, what actually went wrong there?"’.