The fire on Marley's Hill


Friday, 19 April, 2024


The fire on Marley's Hill

In this extended article presented by the Radio Frequency Users Association of New Zealand (RFUANZ), Carl Garner from Ashley Communications recounts how his team responded to the 2024 Port Hills fire as it encroached on key radio communications sites…

14 February 2024 was a typical Wednesday afternoon in the Ashcoms office. The shop was full, the phones were ringing, and the technicians were all flat out like lizards drinking. It was Valentine’s Day, with plenty of chocolates and roses everywhere else, yet my desk was decidedly empty… The radio crackled into life.

“Timaru base, copy?” It was one of our field technicians who had been tasked to a job near Christchurch. “Looks like a lot of smoke coming from the Port Hills… any report?” We didn’t know at the time, but this was to be the start of a very long couple of days.

Not wanting to make any assumptions just yet, but with the memory of 2017 in the back of my mind, I brought up some local webcams for a look. Initial indications were that the fire was down reasonably low on the hill, and heading away from the collective communications sites that reside on the top of Marley’s Hill. We were cautiously optimistic that we weren’t in any immediate danger, and so carried on the day. While we hadn’t officially decided we needed to take any action yet, in the back of my mind I was already starting to think through various scenarios and ‘what ifs’.

The sound of my phone trying to vibrate off my desk dragged me from my thoughts. “Have you heard about the fire yet?” It was our colleagues at Outback Comms, who also have a repeater site up the same hill. Being line of sight, they had a great local picture of where the fire was. “It doesn’t look good.”

As the afternoon turned into evening, Corey from Outback kept us updated with progress reports. As the light faded and the helicopters were grounded, the wind direction changed, and the fire front started climbing the hill towards the comms sites. Just before midnight, the camera on the Amuri site was showing flames right in front of the site. Minutes later, our network monitoring system started sending various alarms as devices started to become unavailable. At this point the reality of what was happening started to sink in. A simple text message from Corey confirmed it, autocorrect and all: “We’re Ducked.”

By this point I had formulated the beginnings of a plan. I messaged a couple of staff despite the late hour — “Marley’s gone. See you at the workshop at 7” — and then went to sleep as I knew the following day would be a long one. I woke up about half 5, had some breakfast and headed in to work. I cleaned off the whiteboard in the tech room and started listing off all the services that we run from that site, and working out what spares we had on hand to commission some temporary repeaters.

Both Ashley Comms and Outback have a selection of portable solar-powered ‘event’ repeaters which we use for short-term events such as bike races. As this had happened the week after the Coast to Coast, unfortunately for Outback their portable frames were spread out on hilltops between Christchurch and the West Coast. Fortunately for us, some of our frames were in our Timaru yard, with more available in our Dunedin workshop. One of our techs arrived and I immediately sent him south to collect our crane trailer and three portable repeater frames from our Dunedin depot.

As more techs started arriving, we started working out which hardware we could use to stand up temporary repeaters. Corey, Matt and their Outback team formed a list of critical services that they had lost, and between the two companies we worked out a finalised list of what needed restoring in a hurry. We are fortunate to have an extensive spares holding for times such as this, and between Outback and ourselves we managed to cobble together enough radios, filters, batteries, antennas and cable to cover all required services with what we had on hand.

We called our affected customers and explained that we were sorry their radios had stopped working, but that we were working on it! Everyone was very understanding of the situation. Luckily our collective digital network has quite a bit of overlapping coverage, which allowed most of the Christchurch digital customers to carry on operating. Some of the core infrastructure that had been burnt down failed over seamlessly to our backup systems, so the main network carried on operating despite having lost a complete repeater site.

Back in the Ashcoms workshop, the technical team were tirelessly configuring and programming various repeaters and tuning up RF filtering equipment. Another team were preparing the event repeater frames to take much more equipment than they were initially built to hold! The Dunedin team prepared and loaded three more event repeater frames, which were ready just after midday and back on their way north to Timaru.

Outback meanwhile had managed to work with local authorities to scope out a potential site where we could deploy these temporary frames.

The original site was still an active fireground, so we couldn’t put them there. If we moved them too far away then coverage patterns and licensing would become a problem, so they did an excellent job of identifying a spot very near the original site that was fit for purpose. The only catch was that it was on Chorus land! Luckily the local Chorus team were incredibly accommodating and expedited our request to temporarily co-locate on their land in truly record-breaking time. I think it’s a true indication that the Kiwi spirit is still well alive and kicking, when traditionally competing companies can all pull together in an hour of need, bypass the red tape, and achieve the best outcomes for end users.

The hours sped by quicker than a racing sardine, but we finally had all five event frames filled with their respective repeater equipment and loaded onto the various trailers and utes to make the trek to Christchurch. We finally pulled into Outback’s yard about 8 pm, where we wolfed down a hurried fish and chip supper kindly supplied by our hosts.

We made sure our headlamps were charged up and our respective four-man teams headed up the hill. Corey waved his magic wand at the various roadblocks and, thanks to his work earlier in the day, we had no trouble making our way up the hill, dodging various fire appliances as we went.

We marked out where we were planning on putting everything and worked out the antenna directions while we could still see the other hilltops, as the sun was rapidly setting below the horizon. The grey smoke cloud in the air, at times obscuring vision to just a few metres, was a constant and sombre reminder that the fire was still not yet extinguished.

It was late at night, but still a very refreshing sight to see two very separate yet similar companies working together as one smooth, well-oiled machine to restore essential services to end users. After many hours, we eventually flicked the last switch and turned the final service online for a test. “Ashcoms to Outback, how do you read?” The response summed it up perfectly. “Reading you 5x5, tired and lightly smoked.”

I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was just before midnight. Less than 24 hours had elapsed from the total loss of both our sites, along with many others on the same hill, to us having all our customers’ services back on air. We worked our way down the hill and had a well-deserved rest. It was a herculean effort from the whole team, but a great example of what can be achieved with the right people involved.

Once we were allowed back on the burnt area, the following days were spent assessing the damage and planning to resurrect the permanent sites. Most of the sites on the hill had sustained some sort of damage, some worse than others. The hilltop was a sea of various technicians interleaved with fire personnel and it was great to see everyone helping everyone else to resurrect services. Plans were made for most efficient use of contractors and coordination of heavy machinery so that everyone on site managed to benefit. The rebuild effort is still ongoing, but good progress is being made and there have certainly been some lessons learnt for the future.

For me, this event was a good reminder as to how quickly things can go from ‘business as usual’ to ‘battle stations’ and thanks must go to both our teams who stepped up when needed and got the job done.

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