Fighting the fire with Anne Newman

In early February, the Christchurch Adventure Park was preparing for a year of new attractions until a fire sent it back in time. Metropol Deputy Editor Nina Tucker talks with General Manager Anne Newman about the experience, and where to now.

Anne’s is a story of déjà vu and resilience, walking through the fire, literally, and coming out the other side. Twice.

Christchurch Adventure Park general manager Anne Newman

Almost seven years to the day, on 14 February, the Port Hills broke out in another blaze.

This one would spread over 700 hectares, evacuate more than 100 homes and the Christchurch Adventure Park, and displace hundreds more people. While for some, it took time to make the connection, Anne knew almost immediately this was something she had experienced before. “It was surreal. Like déjà vu,” Anne remembers.

A born Cantabrian, Anne studied at the University of Canterbury, before moving overseas to work for 15 years in finance and marketing. On her return, Anne set up her own business in the field, taking on the adventure park as a client. After managing the communications for the 2017 Port Hills fire, she was offered the role of general manager.

Over a month on, Anne says she’s tired but “pretty good. There’s light at the end of the tunnel”. She describes the experience as “both easier and harder,” a second time around. Putting the ‘easier’ part down to the relationship built with the fire service following the first blaze, Anne says their help was crucial.

While she dealt with the crisis and evacuated customers herself, she felt for those evacuating their homes. “This is a job. I can go home. People’s homes were at risk. That’s different.” Trauma unites people, something Christchurch is becoming all too familiar with. “These things bond you,” Anne adds, on those connections.

The team had been on high alert and keeping aware of the heated conditions, but there were no real warning signs. It all happened so quickly. “We saw the fire and called 111,” and went through the evacuation process of the park. Only a core Christchurch Adventure Park crew and the fire teams remained after removing everyone from the hills, ziplines, and the café and kitchen. She adds it took almost five hours to extract the chairs from the liftline, before leaving it to the fire emergency services.

That was when the real worry started. “It’s out of your control, you’re kind of helpless. There’s nothing you can do,” Anne explains, that it became a matter of trusting the fire services to do what they do best. “We wouldn’t have been helping anyone if we got involved.”

The unknown was difficult, Anne says. Wondering what the aftermath would be before she was able to assess the damage and figure out what the fire had caused. Timeframes for closure and re-opening were entirely undetermined. “Staff want to know, customers want to know, I want to know. But you just don’t know the answer,” Anne recalls. All she could do was be honest and look for ways to move forward.

“Crises evolve. No two are the same,” Anne explains. Focused on the bigger picture, Anne searched for opportunities, putting a positive spin on something that, for many, would be hard to look on the bright side of. “It’s a good opportunity to get some stuff done. We’re doing some spring cleaning,” she laughs. Anne adds that between fires and Covid-19, they’re “getting pretty good at closing.” “There are two parts to the motivation. You’ve done it before, you know what to do now to come out of it. But it can be quite demoralising at the start looking at all the work you’ve done just to go back and redo it. You’ve got to keep moving forward and motivate your team.”

It’s easier to push through something so distressing when you have something worth the fight. “Knowing what an amazing asset this is for Christchurch and wanting to see it reach its full potential,” Anne says. She adds the park represents a commitment to physical and mental well-being and is so loved by the locals. “I heard stories of kids crying. They were so upset they couldn’t come to the park, they thought they had to sell their bikes.” Many tears were shed during the blaze, the fire becoming not just another hit to the Christchurch Adventure Park team, but to the surrounding homes and families affected, and to the greater Christchurch region.

Once again, Christchurch demonstrated its learned resilience as support came flooding in. Relief came from far and wide, including 15 helicopters, two fixed-wing planes, 28 fire engines, over 100 firefighters, and many more volunteers helping on the ground in the days following, while others showed their support through messaging the park and Anne. Referencing the well-known ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ phrase in her thanks for the help recieved, she added they’re still “only a toddler.” “You realise the park is bigger than you and bigger than the business. It’s a community.”

In overcoming the stress herself, Anne looked to her connections, with friends and family, other business leaders, and those going through it too. “It’s really important to look after yourself.” Walking her dog on the beach, running, sticking to a routine, and watching “some terrible Netflix,” were necessary elements to keep from slipping under. There were sleepless nights with a mind going crazy, and Anne had to remember she had an incredible team to lean on. “Delegating,” she explains, “You don’t have to do it all yourself.”

Anne says they’re working through logistics, but re-opening is on track for the end of March. The team is looking forward to a celebration to mark another challenge conquered and the support shown by the community.

Return to the action:
  • Celebrate the Christchurch Adventure Park re-opening on 22 March.
  • Visit the Metropol Facebook page for details on how to win a Full Zipline Tour for two people.


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