Fires take hold across region

A helicopter dumps the contents of a monsoon bucket on the fire burning out of control in the...
A helicopter dumps the contents of a monsoon bucket on the fire burning out of control in the Mackenzie district yesterday.
Firefighters spent last night creating safety zones around properties and fighting a massive fire that continued to rage in the Mackenzie district yesterday, razing everything in a 3500ha area.

Crews were also fighting a large fire on the Rock and Pillar Range above Middlemarch last night.

A Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) spokeswoman said the rapidly growing fire had reached about 400ha in size by 8.30pm and access was an issue to the high country land.

The fire was "too dangerous" to fight so crews would monitor the blaze until this morning when firefighters would be brought in, she said.

There were no buildings in the area, but a farmer was moving stock.

Middlemarch residents reported the fire was moving "extremely fast".

Fires across the South stretched resources and frustrated firefighters in increasingly windy conditions yesterday.

In Mataura, 30 firefighters battled to control a blaze in the old paper mill, where tonnes of Ouvea premix — waste from aluminium production — which becomes toxic when mixed with water, lies awaiting removal.

In Oamaru, a grass fire spread into a reserve, requiring two helicopters with monsoon buckets to help extinguish it.

At Lee Stream, near Outram, an old fire in slash reignited and a controlled burn that had to be put out were two of several small fires buffeted by strong winds in the area.

But by far the most devastating of the fires was at Pukaki, where 17 helicopters from around the South, two fixed-wing planes, five heavy diggers, forestry crews and about 70 ground staff fought the blaze all day.

It is believed to have started when a cooking stove fell over in a grassy area near Mt Cook Rd (State Highway80), off Dusky Trail, on Sunday.

Onlookers watch as a fire rages in the Rock and Pillar Range above Middlemarch last night. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Onlookers watch as a fire rages in the Rock and Pillar Range above Middlemarch last night. Photo: Peter McIntosh

An incident management team of about 25 personnel was established in Twizel, led by Fenz and supported by staff from Mackenzie District Council and the Department of Conservation.

About 200 day visitors and campers were escorted out of the area on Sunday and further escorted convoys enabled people to leave the area yesterday.

Fenz incident public information manager Chris Clarke said helicopters would take flight at dawn today to make a detailed assessment.

Firefighters had planned for the worst but were hoping for the best today, he said.

He hoped the weather forecast, which showed a temperature drop overnight and possible rain and snow, would have occurred and helped to ease the conditions.

"It will still be a long haul. It is a huge area involved."

It was about containment, stopping it from spreading further, protecting the structures nearby and letting nature take its course and it burn out naturally, he said.

"But a bit of rain would go a long way to speed up that objective."

A strong wind came through yesterday, which was expected, but the wind was not as firece as expected and that meant that helicopters could keep working for most of the day.

Ground crews worked to put a safety zone around the eight properties that lay within the fire zone, while the lake on one side and mountains on the other were acting as a natural containment, he said.

Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith said people were "nervous" about the fire after one a couple of years ago threatened the Twizel village.

"A fire like this always affects the community."

Fortunately, this time the town was not threatened.

But eight houses had to be evacuated and a cottage had been burnt down and that had made the community anxious, he said.

"There will be some people who cannot return to their houses for a couple of days."

In Mataura, a fire in the old paper mill sparked fear among residents, though Fenz was quickly able to reassure people there was no risk to the 8500 tonnes of ouvea premix stored there.

The fire was at the hydro outfall, which used to power the paper mill, but was not the part of the site where the premix is stored.

A spokesman was the fire was on the floor underneath the premix, "approximately 30 metres away".

The 1.40pm blaze, which covered about 10sq m, was quickly contained.

Several residents said they were "freaked out" when they saw smoke coming from the mill.

Shortly afterwards crews were sent to a 10m x 150m fire in a stand of trees, about 5km from Mataura.

In Oamaru, rubberneckers had to be moved on by police so firefighters could operate in the Glen Warren Reserve on the town’s outskirts.

The fire, which was reported at 10am, was out by 12.30pm, after burning through 3ha of vegetation.

There were also several other, smaller, fires in grass and vegetation around the region.

Principal Rural Fire Officer Graeme Still said it was a very busy and "frustrating" day trying to co-ordinate resources across the region.

Strong winds, which had been predicted, contributed to fires spreading quickly and those that were not put out completely restarting.

"A lot of the ignitions were from previous burns which we asked people to go and check."

He called it "a wind-driven event" and said fires were flamed, and efforts to put them out hampered by wind gusts of up to 140km in some areas.

"It is hard to predict where the embers are going to transfer... it makes life difficult.

"It is reasonably frustrating."


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