Report blames farmer for spread of fire

This image  shows the extent of the fire which escaped from the  permitted burn area on Roys Peak, near Wanaka. The permitted area is at right and the fire spread across the mountain to the left. Photo supplied.
This image shows the extent of the fire which escaped from the permitted burn area on Roys Peak, near Wanaka. The permitted area is at right and the fire spread across the mountain to the left. Photo supplied.

The farmer whose permitted burn-off sparked a large fire on Roys Peak, near Wanaka, on October 15 has been found responsible for the blaze.

The fire cost $40,000 to fight, and damaged 116ha of farmland, 17ha of conservation estate, fences, power poles and electrical supply to a radio transmitter. It threatened two homes as it continued to burn overnight, travelling as far as Waterfall Creek, where a combination of topography, aspect and weather helped quell it about 5am the following day. The fire investigation, which included interviews and a site inspection, was carried out by Department of Conservation rural fire officer James Cowan, of Queenstown. His recently-completed report was released to the Otago Daily Times yesterday by Queenstown Lakes District Council principal rural fire officer Gordon Bailey.

The report said John Levy, of Tuohys Farm on Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Rd, had been burning bracken under a permit issued by QLDC. The fire escaped at least three times over the period of the permitted burn, but was stopped each time by a helicopter with monsoon bucket working on site.

''The permittee has failed to notify the escapes as they have happened during the process of his burn and has failed to recognise these escapes as warning signs that additional vigilance was required to control his burn,'' Mr Cowan said.

One of the escapes reignited about 5pm, an hour or two after its perimeter was checked by Mr Levy and an assistant, and spread into neighbouring Alpha Burn Station.

''He has taken what he believes were all reasonable steps to ensure the fire was out. However, my experience and hindsight has shown that the perimeter should have been continued to be monitored until weather conditions were not favourable for reignition - higher RH [relative humidity], low wind, low temperature.

''Mr Levy has not conveyed to me that he is well experienced in burns of this nature and given the high-risk site he was burning, this has more than likely contributed to the escapes.''

Mr Levy arranged for the helicopter pilot to return to the site. However, attempts to suppress the fire by the pilot and Mr Levy - using a Doc-supplied fire-beater - were unsuccessful.

Mr Cowan said the combination of slope, wind, sprayed bracken and low humidity had made the permitted burn ''very difficult'' to contain.

The fire permit issued to Mr Levy stated the burn must be carried out in a southwest wind, but the topography at the fire site meant it was a westerly and northwesterly wind.

''It may have been SW when he started the burn.''

Mr Cowan noted the permit allowed for burning from 6am. However, it was often better to not light up until after 1pm, to determine the day's true wind direction and strength, he said.

''This condition may have been added to take advantage of the early morning low temperatures and higher RH to help contain the burn.''

He recommended future permit requirements for helicopters on site should also recommend they had the capacity to use foam.

Mr Bailey said the recommendations made in the report would be used as a learning tool for issuing future fire permits. Mr Levy had indicated he would cover the fire-fighting costs, although the council had a back-up option of lodging a claim with the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.

While Mr Levy would not face a council prosecution, Doc Wanaka community relations manager Annette Grieve said the department had yet to consider the report and had, therefore, made no decision on whether to prosecute.