Blaze under control; crews stay at scene

Wenita Forestry contractors Jared Laing (left) and Ken McHoull are covered in soot and dust after...
Wenita Forestry contractors Jared Laing (left) and Ken McHoull are covered in soot and dust after working at the scene of the large fire at Woodside, near Outram. Photos by Linda Robertson.
Farmer Michael Harrex.
Farmer Michael Harrex.
Firefighters (from left) Mort Shepherd, Trevor Booth and Dan Fallow discuss the vegetation fire...
Firefighters (from left) Mort Shepherd, Trevor Booth and Dan Fallow discuss the vegetation fire which swept through the Woodside area, near Outram.

The Rural Fire Service will remain at the scene of a massive scrub fire at Woodside, near Outram, that yesterday closed a highway and forced the evacuation of residents.

At the fire's peak, dozens of firefighters battled on the ground alongside two diggers and four tankers, while helicopters with monsoon buckets worked to protect properties and fight the fire from the air.

But, between 5pm and 6pm, the temperature dropped 10C and more than 2mm of rain fell as a southerly front replaced the strong norwesters that had fanned the flames, and the blaze was brought under control.

Fire Service spokeswoman Rachel Butler said this morning rural officers had stayed at the scene to ''keep an eye on things''.

"They've stayed overnight and this morning identifying hot spots.

"There's no wind, so it's pretty quiet down there.''

The fire blackened rows of shrubs which cut ghostly silhouettes against the charred canvas of the hillside.

Trees which bordered Lynn and Paul Bennett's property were scorched to their tips some 10m-15m above the ground.

Burnt vegetation lined the Bennetts' property and flames had come within 10m of their home.

Fire Service Duty Officer Mort Shepherd said the fire had threatened to grow yesterday afternoon until a change in weather favoured firefighters.

''An hour ago she was pretty exciting,'' he said about 6pm yesterday.

''We have been lucky to have a bit of weather that puts us at ease overnight.''

The fire scorched 60ha of gorse and a forestry block along the Maungatua range, forcing the evacuation of a dozen residents from four properties, including the Bennetts, in McKendry Rd.

Farmer Michael Harrex said he had completed a burn-off five weeks ago and, despite recent rain, he believed an ember fanned by the high winds might have sparked into life in some nearby gorse.

He first became aware of the fire at 7am yesterday, and it ''wasn't much at that stage but turned into something major''.

Mr Harrex said he called the Fire Service because ''with the wind the way it was going we had no chance''.

Those flames, which could be seen leaping more than 10m into the air, quickly spread to a forestry block.

State Highway 87 was later closed for several hours to stop ''rubberneckers getting in the way of emergency services'', Senior Sergeant Al Dickie said.

The fire caused about 100 residents of nearby Woodside to be put on evacuation standby while police set up a welfare centre in nearby Outram for any evacuees, he said.

Strong winds up to 80kmh caused thick black smoke to spread across the Taieri.

Otago principal rural fire officer Stephanie Rotarangi, of Dunedin, said the fire was fought on two fronts, with some firefighters and helicopters working to protect property while others battled the the western flank.

''It has been contained around the property, but it is a volatile environment and challenging.''

At 6pm, residents from four properties evacuated because of the fire were allowed to return to their homes.

Mr Shepherd said a crew of three firefighters with one tanker remained in the area overnight, dampening down hotspots and preventing the blaze from flaring up.

The Otago Rural Fire Authority was was expected to be at the scene for most of the week.

It was too early to speculate on the cause of the blaze, but rural property owners were advised that fires could flare up months after a burn-off, depending on what fuel they used.

Fire Service East Otago area manager Laurence Voight praised the ground crew and helicopter pilots working on the blaze, who he said did an ''incredible job''.

Over the weekend they had attended three rural fires across the region, and it was a reminder coming into Guy Fawkes season ''just how dry the conditions are''.

''Please show extreme care when using fireworks,'' he said.

Helicopters Otago chief executive Graeme Gale said the conditions were extremely challenging for the pilots.

''It was very difficult flying conditions. The wind might not seem as strong here but once you get on top of that hill it is a different story,''Delta marketing and communications manager Gary Johnson said the fire service requested the electricity be switched off at five properties near the fire.

The ''emergency isolation'' started at noon, he said.

- additional reporting NZME. News Service

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