Short circuit caused massive Ōhau blaze which destroyed 48 homes

An electrical short circuit on a power pole was responsible for one of the biggest fires in New Zealand history.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) has today released its reports into the Lake Ōhau fire, which destroyed 48 homes in South Canterbury the early hours of October 4, 2020.

It took firefighters nine days to fully extinguish the 5000ha fire, one of the worst in modern New Zealand history.

Fire and Emergency Te Kei Region Manager Mike Grant said specialist fire investigators have determined that the fire was accidental and caused by an electrical short circuit on a power pole several kilometres upwind of the village, which ignited dry vegetation below the powerline.

“Vegetation, terrain, high temperatures and, in particular, severe winds contributed to the rapid spread of this fire towards the Lake Ōhau village and surrounding countryside,” he said.

“Fortunately, no lives were lost thanks to the quick actions from residents of the Lake Ōhau Alpine Village who enacted the community’s wildfire plan, and the swift response and evacuations by the Twizel and Omarama Volunteer Fire Brigades and local police.’’

The investigation report noted the wind was some of the most intense experienced at Lake Ōhau, with the weather station at Pukaki Downs recording a wind gust of 127km/h at 3.30am at the time of the fire.

Strong winds continued for many days, making fire management difficult.

"[On] 6 October strong wind gusts of 163.5km/h at 04.29 am and 167.2 km/h at 05.44am were also recorded."

At the peak of the fire, there were 11 helicopters and more than 100 people deployed to support the response.

Andy Winneke caught sight of the blaze from where he was camping with his family. Photo: Andy...
Andy Winneke caught sight of the blaze from where he was camping with his family. Photo: Andy Winneke

Courageous actions praised

At a news conference this afternoon, Mr Grant paid tribute to the efforts of the community and firefighters.

"I'd like to commend these people's bravery and quick thinking. Lives would certainly have been lost without their prompt and courageous actions that day."

He said conditions on the day were extreme, but he believed the report's findings would be of interest to lines companies.

The report noted the risk to Lake Ōhau village from a wildfire under certain conditions had been recognised as part of risk reduction work several years ago by previous rural fire authorities, which developed a tactical fire plan.

Damage caused by the Lake Ohau fire. PHOTO: Peter McIntosh
Damage caused by the Lake Ōhau fire. PHOTO: Peter McIntosh
The Waitaki District Council placed a fire siren in the village to alert residents if an evacuation was ever required. The siren was able to be easily activated by any resident or visitor to the village if they were aware of its purpose and location.

It played a key role in alerting residents in the village of the need to evacuate immediately when a fire was noticed. 

Fenz also carried out an operational review into the fire, which considered how fire crews handled the emergency.

“The review praised the fire crews and residents for their fast actions in the face of fire conditions rarely seen in New Zealand,” Mr Grant said.

“I commend their bravery. Their actions undoubtedly saved lives and several properties that would otherwise have been destroyed.’’

The review found the incident was well-managed and had good strategies to ensure the priority was always the people who were impacted by the fire, Mr Grant said.

“Recognising the wildfire risk, we have been working with the Lake Ōhau community for more than 20 years to develop a wildfire plan - and providing wildfire equipment and training.

“We will continue to support them and will be working with them to update their wildfire response plan, incorporating any recommendations from these reports, including factoring in the transient and visitor population of the village," Mr Grant said.

“We acknowledge this has been a tough year for the wider community as they have worked through the impact of the fire. We thank them for their patience while our investigators took the necessary time to complete a thorough investigation.’’ 

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