Port Hills fire: 'We didn't know the chairlift was a fire risk'

The Port Hills fire near Worsley Drive. Photo: File image
The Port Hills fire near Worsley Drive. Photo: File image
An adventure park ordered to pay $12 million in damages following the 2017 Port Hills fire says it had no idea its chairlift was a potential fire risk and could contribute to the spread of the blaze.

The fire, which was lit by an arsonist near the boundary of the Christchurch Adventure Park (CAP), burned through nearly 2000 hectares of forestry, 11 homes and caused a significant amount of property damage for dozens of homeowners.

It resulted in a large scale firefighting effort over several days.

High Court Justice David Gendall last year ruled while CAP didn't start the blaze it was liable for the spread of the fire and ordered the company to pay the owners of 80 damaged homes a total of $12 million.

That decision was based on the fact CAP failed to remove plastic chairs from a chairlift it kept running during the blaze.

The park has disputed liability for damages in the Court of Appeal in Wellington, claiming they weren't properly informed of the risks by the chairlift company Doppelmayr.

"All the defendant has done here is continue to operate a chairlift in accordance to the operator manual in the face of an arsonist's fire," lead defence council Campbell Walker QC said yesterday.

While the fire raged through the Port Hills, CAP staff left the chairlift running to try and prevent damage to the haul rope.

The chairs caught fire and molten plastic dropped onto uncleared dry pine below causing spot fires which grew into a large outbreak that raged through to the neighbouring properties.

The 80 plaintiffs launched a civil action against the park, which cost $20m to build and had been open for just two months before the fire.

Walker argued the park was not made aware by the chairlift company that the melting of the chairs was a potential risk in a fire, and nowhere in the manual or instructions was it mentioned either.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
He said that suggests the park did all it could have done with the information at hand and the fault was in the lack of information from the chairlift company.

Walker said the lift was kept running during the fire so that the haul rope, made of a hard plastic centre and steel outer cabling, wouldn't snap.

The seats weren't in the forefront of the park's mind because they didn't know of the potential risks in the first place.

Walker said the concerns were primarily about safety, not of the park protecting the asset of the lift.

"You don't want a haul rope on a long chairlift snapping," he said. "This isn't the park trying to calmly protect its assets - this is a safety issue."

Chairs were eventually removed during the fire, but the process was slow, taking around six to eight hours, and done only because chairs were bunching from a technical issue and straining the haul rope.

If removing the chairs was an obvious and essential course of action during a fire it would be easier to do so, and would be mentioned in the fire safety plan or manual, Walker said.

Walker said the manual is meant to be applicable and not something to stray or adapt from and that it was unreasonable for lift managers working during the fire to predict what was to happen and how to respond when the lift company hadn't addressed the potential disaster themselves.

Michael Ring QC began submissions on behalf of the homeowners, discussing the major issues brought to light by Walker.

Ring said the forest fire was a foreseeable major risk and the vegetation left underneath the chairlift was a breach in the fire safety management plan.

He also said foreseeability played a role in this event, as the haul rope was turned on to avoid the impacts of fire days before the chairs were taken off the rope.

Ring said the park had ample opportunity over the three days to remove the chairs.

"They had a tonne of time, a tonne of opportunity and the presence of a tonne of talent capable of moving the chairs off the line by Wednesday morning."

The hearing was set to last two days, with lawyers for the homeowners' continuing submissions today.

-By Hazel Osborne
Open Justice multimedia journalist




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