The army denies it has been reckless after two fires were
started on the same day during separate training exercises in
hot, dry conditions.
By last night a fire had destroyed 350ha of scrub on training
land around the Waiouru base in the central North Island
after an exercise by Singaporean armed forces. There were no
injuries and no damage to property.
Five civilian helicopters and a Royal New Zealand Air Force
helicopter were needed to fight the blaze.
And on Wednesday, a major blaze was ignited by grenade
training at the Burnham camp at West Melton near
Selwyn District Council principal rural fire officer Wilson
Brown estimated the Defence Force would face a bill of about
$200,000 for the cost of tackling the fire.
This morning, acting army chief Brigadier Peter Kelly
defended the army's actions.
"This particular fire [Waiouru] clearly was not planned, but
it is something that we do prepare for," he told Radio New
The blaze was relatively large, but it was not unusual to
have fires sparked by training sessions, he said.
He conceded the day was particularly dry, but the training
area was isolated and away from any key infrastructure.
"It's essential that we do training in hot, dry climates, we
need to replicate those airs of the world we deploy our
forces to...we do take a lot of preventative measures but
unfortunately.. these things do occur," Brigadier Kelly said.
"We are definitely genuinely sorry for the angst and the
destruction we have caused the local community at West
Melton. We value our relationship with them, we have been in
that community since World War 2, so we see ourselves as
active players in that area."
Brigadier Kelly said they decide on training exercises on a
case by case basis and did take weather conditions into
"But I can't say we will close off all training ranges
because they are so vital to the generation of capability of
the New Zealand Army."
The army was conducting an investigation into the fires and
would be speaking with the police as part of that.
The police have said arson charges could result if reckless
action by the army was proved.
"Reckless would not be a word that I would use to describe
this event - it was a carefully planned activity, we felt we
had the preventative measures in place, unfortunately a piece
of shrapnel skipped out of the containment area that we had
set aside for the training area and the strong winds fanned
the fire at West Melton."
Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said he was "very
concerned" by the two fires.
Live firing at Burnham has been suspended but the Defence
Force could not say whether that decision would be broadened
to include other bases around the country.
Dr Coleman could not comment on whether all live fire
training should be suspended temporarily as much of the
country faced tinderbox conditions.
"I am very concerned about the fires and have been receiving
regular updates. I am seeking further information from the
New Zealand Defence Force but won't be in a position to
comment until I have received it."