Fire in Dunedin hills 'suspicious'

A large scrub fire that tore across hills above central Dunedin yesterday is being treated as suspicious.

The news comes as the remaining families evacuated last night were cleared to return to their homes today.

Principal Rural Fire Officer Graeme Still said today the blaze was being treated as suspicious, and a specialist fire investigator would be at the scene -in the Flagstaff area - this afternoon.

"It's odd where it started, that's all," Mr Still said, when asked about the possible cause.

"All I can say is it's in the middle of nowhere."

At a briefing this morning, Fire and Emergency New Zealand Assistant Area Commander Craig Geddes praised the work of helicopter crews who battled the blaze yesterday, saying they were able to "knock the sting out" of it.

He said the blaze had been contained but was "certainly not out".

Fenz said on Facebook this afternoon there had been a couple of flareups in the western part of the fire inside the perimeter. 

"The conditions continue to be a challenge due to strong winds around the city.

"The track around Flagstaff remains closed to the public and we continue to ask people to stay clear from the area."

Speaking to those who had to spend a night away from their homes, he thanked them for their cooperation, and said the nature of the fuel type on the hill and the possibility of changing winds had prompted the decision to evacuate.

Still said native bush slowed the fire down yesterday, allowing crews to gain some control. Today, efforts would concentrate on ensuring the perimeter was extinguished, by damping down any hotspots. 

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) regional controller Laurence Voight last night confirmed the fire was "under control'' shortly before 7pm and helicopters had been stood down for the night.

Earlier story

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

An evacuation centre opened yesterday afternoon at the Flagstaff Community Church has also closed. About six families gathered there briefly from late afternoon.

The blaze, which began shortly after 1pm yesterday, spread along the Pineapple Track on Flagstaff.

Melissa Randwick evacuates her 15-year-old mare Jenny from a Rudd Rd property.  PHOTOS: GERARD O...
Melissa Randwick evacuates her 15-year-old mare Jenny from a Rudd Rd property. PHOTOS: GERARD O’BRIEN, GREGOR RICHARDSON, FIRE AND EMERGENCY NEW ZEALAND
And, as firefighters aided by eight helicopters fought the flames, police moved Rudd Rd residents as a precaution ahead of northwest winds predicted to gust to 100kmh overnight.

At its height, parts of Dunedin were wreathed in smoke as the fire quickly took over the ridgeline, consuming at least 12ha of scrub and gorse, and high flames were visible from the central city through the afternoon.

Fenz region manager Mike Grant said the hot, dry and windy conditions had helped the fire spread quickly.

A weather shift later in the day brought higher humidity and drizzle, and the fire appeared to be all but out by late afternoon.

A Fenz spokeswoman said last night there was not yet any indication of the fire's cause. An investigator was expected at the scene today.

A helicopter drops water on to the Flagstaff fire in Dunedin yesterday.
A helicopter drops water on to the Flagstaff fire in Dunedin yesterday.
The area is a popular recreational spot with walking and cycling tracks, which had been flown over soon after the fire started to ensure no-one was on them.

The landscape is covered by grass, scrub and tussock with forestry blocks nearby.

Fenz East Otago assistant area commander Craig Geddes said the fire was first seen by walkers, and initially covered about half a football field, but soon spread.

A bulldozer and digger had been used to forge access to the area, which was in difficult-to-reach terrain, allowing ground crews to reach the area as helicopters dropped water, he said.

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

The Otago Daily Times saw a steady stream of residents leaving the area about 4.30pm, including some leading horses down Rudd Rd.

Among them was Tracey Owens, owner of a 2.5ha property in Wakari Rd, near Rudd Rd, who said she was on standby to evacuate five "very precious'' horses from the property.

She had been sitting on her deck when she noticed the blaze yesterday afternoon.

"[I] happened to glance at Flagstaff and there it was in all its glory ... It was panic stations then.''

Helicopters were called in to tackle the blaze yesterday. Photo: Ruth Topless
Helicopters were called in to tackle the blaze yesterday. Photo: Ruth Topless
The owner of Weimar Boarding Kennels, near the top of Rudd Rd, also evacuated just before 4pm.

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

About six families from the evacuated area had gathered at Flagstaff Community Church by late afternoon, waiting to see if they could return to their homes later.

Among them were Jan Leunissen and wife Marloes, owners of a lifestyle block off Rudd Rd, who had been alerted to the fire by a text message from a friend.

The fire was about 1km from their property, and although they could not see the flames, thick smoke had slowly darkened the sky.

"We just walked outside and we saw the smoke ... Within, I would say, 15 minutes it was very scary.

"It was really like a thick column of smoke. It covered the whole area and made it really dark.

"What can you do? You grab what is really necessary - your passport, your marriage certificate, your essentials you really need - and you make sure it's in the car so you can leave.''

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