Blaze under control: Families can return home

An aerial image taken of the fire near Flagstaff today. Photo: Fire and Emergency New Zealand
An aerial image taken of the fire near Flagstaff today. Photo: Fire and Emergency New Zealand

Families evacuated as a large scrub fire tore across Flagstaff Hill, in Dunedin, have been allowed to return home tonight after the fire was brought under control.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) Regional Controller Laurence Voight tonight confirmed the fire was "under control'' and helicopters had been stood down for the night.

Ground crews would continue to monitor the scene overnight in case of flare-ups, but the efforts of fire crews - together with the timely arrival of some late afternoon rain - had helped, he said.

Emergency services had evacuated residents from seven properties on Rudd Rd as a precaution, as the fire spread, but Mr Voight said the residents were now able to return to six of the seven homes.

An evacuation centre opened this afternoon at the Flagstaff Community Church has also closed again.

Earlier today

"Weather conditions have played a little bit in our favour,''  Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) region manager Mike Grant said.

"Temperatures when it started were quite high, but they have dropped down below 10degC, and the relative humidity, which is a measure of the moisture in the air, has gone from 30% when it started, to 60%.''

Despite those encouraging signs, firefighters were keeping a way eye out for forecast high northwesterly winds, and had evacuated several houses on Rudd Rd, Halfway Bush, as a precautionary measure, Mr Grant said.

"A bunch of houses have been evacuated, with the evacuees moved to an evacuation centre at the Flagstaff Community Church, on Centennial Rd.''

Mr Grant was not able to say how many houses had been evacuated.

Just after 6pm, Fenz announced the evacuation centre had closed and would be on standby overnight in case it was needed.

DCC Civil Defence staff will also be on standby overnight. Anyone with welfare needs is asked to phone 03 477 4000.

A large trail of smoke wafts into the air as a helicopter (right) fights the blaze with a monsoon bucket. Photo: Sai Palagummi
A large trail of smoke wafts into the air as a helicopter (right) fights the blaze with a monsoon bucket. Photo: Sai Palagummi

"Fairly steady winds are forecast from tonight right through to 2pm tomorrow afternoon, with winds up to 100kmh gusts.

"If the fire is not contained on that edge, that could push the fire right down into that area,'' Mr Grant said.

The fire, which began just before 1.30pm near the Pineapple Track on Flagstaff Hill, created a large column of smoke visible across the city.

By 4.30pm much less smoke was visible, but firefighters continued to battle the blaze.

Tussock burns on the Pineapple Track earlier today. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Tussock burns on the Pineapple Track earlier today. Photo: Gerard O'Brien

After earlier saying there were no concerns about property, Fenz updated the situation just before 3.30pm saying evacuations were underway in Rudd Rd and the Redwood Loop Mountain Bike Trail.

Police said cordons were going up near the Redwood Loop Mountain Bike Trail and on Rudd Rd.

"We thank residents for cooperating with emergency services at this time."

The fire's movements

Fire and Emergency New Zealand East Otago assistant area commander Craig Geddes, speaking at the scene, said the fire had been reported after being spotted by walkers in the area earlier this afternoon.

What was at first a fire covering about half a football field had quickly grown, although the cause of the fire was not yet known, he said.

A bulldozer and digger had been used to force access to the area, which was in difficult-to-reach terrain, he said.

The fire had been tracking towards an area of pine trees, blue gum and gorse, prompting the precautionary evacuation of residents from upper parts of Rudd Rd, he said.

Other residents further down the hill were on stand-by to leave as well.

Residents evacuated

The Otago Daily Times saw a steady stream of residents leaving the area about 4.30pm, including some leading horses down Rudd Rd to ensure they were out of harm's way.

Among them was resident Tracey Owens, who owns a six acre property on Wakari Rd near Rudd Rd. She said she was concerned for about five "very precious" horses who lived on the property, and was on stand-by to move them if needed.

She had been sitting on her deck when she first notices the blaze.

"[I] happened to glance at Flagstaff and there was in all its glory.

"It was panic stations then."

She had lived in the area for 20 years and knew a lot of people on Rudd Rd and was concerned for them.

At the Flagstaff Community Church, about five or six families from the evacuated area had gathered by late afternoon, waiting to see if they could return to their homes later tonight.

Jan Leunissen was among them, having been alerted to the fire by text message and then asked to leave by police about 4pm.

He and wife Marloes had friends to stay with, if needed, but said the developing plume of smoke had been scary to see as it spread.

A helicopter battles a blaze on Flagstaff. Photo: Ruth Topless
A helicopter battles a blaze on Flagstaff. Photo: Ruth Topless

The owner of Weimar Boarding Kennels, which is near the top of Rudd Rd, was in the process of evacuating just before 4pm.

Dogs staying in the kennels had been moved to a neighbouring property and she was about to leave.

She had been told by police it was a case of being on the "safe side" as emergency services were uncertain whether the fire would spread to her property.

"They are not sure because there is meant to be strong winds coming up [later this afternoon]."

She was very worried.

 

Burnt tussock on the Pineapple Track earlier today. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Burnt tussock on the Pineapple Track earlier today. Photo: Gerard O'Brien

Devastation to vegetation

A witness at the scene said "a huge amount" of tussock and flax had been engulfed by the flames.

The fire had burnt tussock and flax on both sides of the track. Along with eight helicopters, rural firefighters were on the ground on the hill.

A witness in North East Valley said they could see flames along the ridgeline, and a long stretch can now be seen from the CBD.

A Fenz spokesman said there had been fears radio masts might be under threat and a helicopter had been sent to protect them.

Eight helicopters have now been sent to help fight the fire, which was in a very difficult location to access, the spokesman said.

Both ends of the Pineapple Track have been cordoned off, and the track was checked to see if any walkers had been on it.

Dunedin Civil Defence urged people to stay clear of the scene of the fire.

"There are cordons currently in place around the corner of Flagstaff and Taieri Road,'' a statement said.

"There are also cordons around Tanner Road.''

All people had been evacuated from the walking track.

Winds in the area were gusting up to 46kmh.

Smoke from the fire was being blown northeast, with residents in Halfway Bush reporting being swamped with smoke.

The MetService has issued a severe weather watch for Otago, including Dunedin, from 5pm today until 5am tomorrow, saying northwesterly winds could approach  severe gale strength  in  exposed places.

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