Police hand over unsolved arson case to Fenz

More than two years after fire destroyed 1370ha of the world-renowned Awarua-Waituna Wetlands, the case remains unresolved.

A New Zealand Police spokesperson said inquiries were conducted in collaboration with Fire and Emergency New Zealand and the case had been passed to Fenz for further action and the police file closed.

"At the conclusion of the police investigation, a legal opinion was sought and, as a consequence of that, it was deemed more appropriate that the case was passed over to Fenz."

A Fenz spokesperson said the organisation was not privy to any legal advice the police had received in relation to the fire.

It had investigated the fire but the spokesperson said Fenz was unable to comment. In 2022 staff said they believed the fire was deliberately lit.

"We have investigated this matter. However ... we can’t provide you with any further detail while this incident remains under consideration."

The fire was lit during a restricted fire season while the province was in the middle of a severe drought, declared only days before the fire was started.

The south coast had received its lowest rainfall in 50 years, causing tinder-dry conditions and widespread water shortages.

Fuelled by strong winds and drought conditions, the fire quickly covered a 26km perimeter, razing hectares of New Zealand’s largest wetland.

Official Information Act (OIA) documents said crews had expressed concern any wind shift towards the south would threaten the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

On April 11, 2022, Rio Tinto’s Tiwai brigade was joined by a redeployed fire crew and a helicopter to contain a second fire deliberately lit under a power pylon on the smelter side of the Tiwai bridge before it ignited more dense manuka scrub.

At the main fire’s peak, several ground crews from Canterbury, Otago and Southland fought the blaze, while up to nine helicopters attacked the fire from the air.

But high winds later grounded the helicopters, delaying the fire being brought under control from the air.

Difficult on-foot access among the burning peat-bog ground also hampered fire crews’ efforts to douse it.

Information released under the OIA revealed it cost the New Zealand taxpayer more than $1.6 million to extinguish the blaze.

The Fenz spokesperson did not say if compensation would be sought from anyone proven to be responsible for starting it.

But Fenz had the power to prosecute people for breaches of fire control and fire safety.

People prosecuted under the Fenz Act for lighting fires in an open prohibited area could be fined up to $600,000 and face up to two years’ imprisonment.

The wetland was one of the first to be recognised of international importance for its ecosystem, which provides homes to a variety of rare and threatened fauna, including the Southern New Zealand dotterel.

 - By Toni McDonald