By Mark Nelson, Works Officer | Apiha Kaimahi, based in Hokitika
West Coast conservation land took a hammering in Cyclone Ita over Easter and the clean-up is still underway to clear windblown trees from tracks in the Kawatiri/Buller region.
Crews from around the country have flown into Buller to help clear tracks. Pictured (on the final day of work on Inland track): Nathan Lightbourne (Manawatu), Stephen 'Nobby' Robson (Manawatu), Tim Mitchell (Punakaiki), John 'JJ' Rasmussen (Manawatu), Daryl Stephens (Catchpool/Wellington)
Seeing the devastation
I recently spent a day with the Chainsaw Team from the Kawatiri/Westport Office undertaking windfall clearance on the Inland Pack track out of Punakaiki post Cyclone Ita.
I've worked with this team before and was keen to catch up with them, see how they were coping with this massive event.
Many of the larger trees have massive root plates attached, showing how these forest giants have simply toppled over in the winds of Cyclone Ita
I met Tim Mitchell early on 19 June at the workshop in Punakaiki, with Hayden Chalmers, Dave Guppy and Simon Abel arriving from the Westport office.
After a very good hazard briefing we headed out to get stuck into the work. This is a close-knit team and they get on together very well. They are serious about what they do but there was good humour throughout the day.
The sheer devastation caused by Cyclone Ita is hard to imagine until you are standing on the ground in the middle of it. There are trees lying everywhere and they are thick. In some places the forest canopy has almost vanished.
Trunks range in size from 25 mm to 1300 mm. Many of the larger trees have root plates attached and there are root plates with multiple large stems. The windfall is so thick that the team have often only been able to clear 25 to 30 metres per day.
Everything is criss-crossed and, arriving at the site where the team finished clearing the day before, the track disappears into a 4 metre high wall of green. There are widow makers hanging in some of the adjacent trees. Some trees have been uprooted but are still upright.
Conservation Services Manager for Buller/Kawatiri, Bob Dickson, surveys the damage to Inland Track, with Senior Ranger Eric de Boer
How are the team's coping?
Clearing each tree has its own risks and challenges, depending on its size and location. Crews need to be top of their game at all times to make smart decisions about how to approach the job
Trees of all sizes lay crisscrossed across the tracks; luckily most of the bridges and infrastructure escaped largely unscathed
Working through an event like this takes planning, discipline and a real team effort at every level.
Managers making sure staff are not fatigued and have regular breaks, and supervisors making sure processes for hazard ID and windfall assessment are worked through for every tree and situation. In general everybody is keeping an eye out for their teammates, making sure everyone stays safe. There is nothing left unsaid here.
Working in this hazardous environment day after day can lead to normalising the work, and the team in Buller have worked hard not to let this happen.
This is a high hazard environment and a major event. Chainsaw teams from around the country who have flown in to lend support and transfer their knowledge and experience have helped this process of keeping perspective.
Even with the large number of man hours and the many different people involved, the safety record for the job has been close to perfect.
Have your head in the game
It's impossible to imagine the scale of the destruction caused by Cyclone Ita until you see it for yourself; most of the canopy around Inland Track (Punakaiki) now lies on the forest floor
The work is mentally and physically demanding, so it's essential to manage and avoid fatigue.
Try picking up a chainsaw with a 24 inch bar (about 8.5kg); carrying it an hour or so to site with your gas, supplies and gear; working for six hours wielding the saw at numerous angles and heights from ground to shoulder; and all the while being faced with deciphering the tangle of branches and trunks in front of you safely, knowing your own safety and the safety of your team is in your hands.
This is tough work. It's vital that everyone is at the top of their game every day.
There has been some significant learning for all concerned, lessons that will serve this team and those who worked on the job well into the future. You must "have your head in the game", utilise good process and remember that being safe is about a healthy mix of confidence, respect and team work.
Tim and his crew finished the job of clearing Inland Track on 7 July—an awesome milestone for the Buller team—but this is just one track of many in the district that have been hit just as hard.
The work will continue for the next few months, and even then there may be tracks that are left un-opened due to the sheer amount of damage.
This has been a great effort by the 'Boys from Buller'—and all those from around the country who have helped out along the way.
Check out the video of DOC staff members from Kawatiri/Westport office cleaning up windfall on the Inland Pack Track at Punakaiki.