Queenstown opens its heart to fire victims


A mum who escaped a Queenstown house fire with her young daughter says it was the most terrifying moment of her life.

Pam Hill, 46, was in the second house destroyed by a raging blaze in Aspen Grove on Sunday afternoon.

She fled the wooden rental accommodation with Mia, 5, before the flames spread from the neighbouring property.

“I stuck my head out the back door and got the fright of my life,” Hill says.

“Flames were licking up the side of the front property - I could tell by the way it was moving the house
wasn’t going to survive.

“It was so quick and the smoke with it. I shouted out to my daughter ‘fire, fire’ and basically panicked.”

Hill picked up the house phone to dial 111 but neighbours from across the street came to the door and shouted for them to get out.

Within 10 minutes the fire had a solid grip on both houses.

“What keeps going through my mind is, thank God it didn’t happen when we were asleep. We didn’t
have working smoke alarms so could potentially have lost our lives, especially with the smoke which was
unbelievably pungent and thick.

“I was numb afterwards, in shock and disbelief. It still feels like it was a dream.”

Twenty-four firefighters tackled the blaze but were unable to save the houses.

Cameron Mewburn, 55, tenant in the first house, arrived home with son Kai, four, as the volunteer brigade fought the fire.

Mewburn’s wife Ryoko was at work but by that stage Hill and Mia, both wearing pyjamas, had been taken in by neighbours, and after some confusion six firefighters wearing breathing apparatus entered the properties to confirm no one was inside.

Mewburn, who works at pizza restaurant Winnies, says: “They’re heroes and we want to thank them and everyone who’s supported us since - it’s been truly overwhelming.”

Both families have been taken in by neighbours they’d never met before - the Hills by Allison Cooper and Warren Petterson, and the Mewburns by Jack and Mary Turnbull.

They’ve also been offered free accommodation until they get back on their feet and the Salvation Army and Japanese Family Society of Queenstown have launched fundraising appeals, coordinated by Victim Support and Jigsaw Central Lakes.

The likes of Montessori, Mercure, drycleaners and dozens of other individuals have offered helped both in person and on social media.

“It’s all been organised for us,” beauty therapist Hill says, “just incredible.

“Sandy Ballantyne, who used to live in the house, has been so much help, offering us a place to
live for a while.”

Mewburn says: “We’ve had strangers coming up to us in the street offering support. You
wouldn’t get that in a city.

“It was a feeling of despair watching the fire but we’re just so relieved that no one was hurt.”

Central North Otago fire risk management officer Stuart Ide says the fire took hold after hot ashes in an unsealed metal bucket on a deck were whipped up by the wind - the third such accident in Central Otago in a fortnight.

Insurance assessors agree.

Mewburn says that’s “possibly” down to him, he’s not too sure.

“But I’d urge anyone disposing of ashes to make sure it’s a sealed container or use water to make

Hill agrees and says: “Everyone also needs to make sure right no they have a working smoke alarm.
Don’t leave it until it’s too late.”

Mewburn says he’s spoken to the property owner Ian Ballantyne.

“Whatever happened I’m very sorry and offered my condolences,” Mewburn says.

“I’ve spoken to him on the phone and he was as good as possible for someone who’s in Bali and just been told his house has burned down.”

The Mewburns lost practically everything.

They have only “very basic” contents insurance. Hill has none.

She managed to salvage some clothes the next day but everything else was destroyed.

Donations can be made at Sushi Box in Beach Street or Salvation Army on Camp St.