Couple speak to police over Skippers blaze

Queenstown friends (from left) Lee Gamble, Alan Wharton and Morgan Harteveld with one of the hand-pumped fire extinguishers they used to try to put out the fire which destroyed the historic Mount Aurum Homestead at the Skippers camping area near Queenstow
Queenstown friends (from left) Lee Gamble, Alan Wharton and Morgan Harteveld with one of the hand-pumped fire extinguishers they used to try to put out the fire which destroyed the historic Mount Aurum Homestead at the Skippers camping area near...
Fire and Emergency New Zealand officers and a police detective examine the scene of the Mount Aurum Homestead fire yesterday.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand officers and a police detective examine the scene of the Mount Aurum Homestead fire yesterday.
One of the homestead's chimneys is silhouetted in the flames as the house burns. Photo: Anna Williams
One of the homestead's chimneys is silhouetted in the flames as the house burns. Photo: Anna Williams

Queenstown police have spoken to a couple who reportedly fled the scene of a fire that razed a historic homestead at the Skippers camping area early yesterday morning.

Police said in a statement this afternoon they had spoken to the couple they were seeking in connection with the blaze, who were believed to have been staying in the building on the night of the fire.

The couple contacted police today and police were satisfied that they had reasons for not coming forward before now.

No arrests had been made and police were not seeking anyone else in relation to the fire. 

Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw, of the Central Otago CIB, earlier told the Otago Daily Times today they had received valuable information from the public about the fire.

He said police believed they knew the identity of the man who fled the scene and again asked him to come forward and contact Queenstown police.

The woman, who was with him, was believed to be from Queenstown and the man "transient across the South Island".

Det Shaw said yesterday they appeared to have been in the homestead when the fire started.

One of the campers who helped stop the blaze from spreading, Lee Gamble, of Queenstown, said they were all angry at the actions of the couple who left the scene apparently without raising the alarm.

The ''rowdy'' couple, who arrived about 6pm on New Year's Eve, told them they were from Queenstown.

Police and a fire safety investigation officer have launched investigations into the cause of the fire, which was limited to the homestead after a frantic effort by eight campers at the Department of Conservation (Doc) campsite, which is about 20km north of the resort.

Mr Gamble awoke just before 2am to see flames in the rear-vision mirror of his vehicle.

He and five friends, as well as a couple camping nearby, called 111 and moved their vehicles away from the blaze.

Another resort resident, Morgan Harteveld, said the homestead was already ''well-engulfed'' by the time the group realised what was happening.

He and another man found two hand-operated fire extinguishers in a Doc staff quarters a short drive away. Using a third extinguisher from the schoolhouse, the group worked to prevent the fire spreading into long grass and trees down the bank behind the homestead.

The homestead collapsed within about 45 minutes, he said.

Mr Gamble said they were ''literally running backwards and forwards'' refilling the extinguishers in an adjacent toilet block.

Doc Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen said it was possible the couple had lit a fire in the homestead's open fireplace.

''It's fortunate no-one's lost their life, but it's devastating for all those with a connection to Skippers, the original families and their descendants.''

The extreme fire risk in the Wakatipu was his ''biggest concern of the summer'', a feeling heightened by a huge fire that destroyed 150ha of regenerating native bush at Rat Point, on the Queenstown-Glenorchy Rd, almost a year ago.

The homestead's destruction comes only five days after Doc ranger Jim Croawell made a plea in the Otago Daily Times for locals to act as guardians of the Wakatipu's historic buildings during the summer holidays - including ''historic gems'' such as the homestead and schoolhouse at Skippers.

Central-North Otago Fire Risk Management Officer Stu Ide praised the efforts of the campers who fought the fire.

''They did a really fabulous job of containing it, and good on them, because it could have been a lot worse.''

About 20 firefighters and appliances from Arrowtown, Queenstown and rural fire attended the incident.

The first responders arrived within an hour, and the fire was fully out by 4am.

Mount Aurum Homestead and the neighbouring schoolhouse, which was not damaged, were restored by Doc in 2011.

They are listed as category 2 historic places by Heritage New Zealand, whose website states the homestead was ''probably cobbled together from at least three other small timber buildings'', and inhabited by runholders of the former Mount Aurum Station from the 1890s.

Lakes District Museum director David Clarke said the loss of the homestead would be gutting for the many people who worked hard to retain the old buildings.

Most visitors to the district's historic sites were careful, but it took only one careless action to lose an ''irreplaceable'' building.

''It's a real shame for heritage in the district.

''You don't want to lock the doors - it's nice to leave these places open. It's just lucky it didn't spread into the school building.''

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