Ohau fire: Long road ahead as battle goes on

There is a long road ahead for residents of Ohau Village as the fire continues to rage through thousands of hectares of the Mackenzie Basin.

Winds reaching up to 160kmh forced helicopters to stay on the ground and made firefighting challenging yesterday morning.

About 100 firefighters working on the ground tackled the blaze, which has destroyed more than 40 houses and burnt through more than 5500ha since it started early on Sunday.

Incident Controller Rob Hands described the fire as "complex".

"This area features a range of different fuels, including wilding pines, grass and tussock. It also features steep terrain. These variables can make firefighting difficult.

"While the winds have been strong, it has been pleasing to see that we have managed to keep the fire within the containment zone."

A hot spot had flared up in the village yesterday morning, but firefighters were quick to bring it under control.

"There’s been no threat to any further properties."

In an update this morning Fire and Emergency New Zealand said there had been little fire activity overnight, and cooler conditions today were "good" for fire-fighting.

Ground crews and heavy machinery would today work to manage hot spots and further secure and control the fire perimeter, which means creating a zone 10m from the perimeter with no hot spots.

A team of fire investigators has started looking at the cause, area of origin and spread of the fire, but "due to its complexity it will be some time before this will be complete", he said.

The wind dropped later in the morning, in time for a special convoy to enter the fire zone.

At 10am, six cars carrying about a dozen residents were lined up at the incident control centre in Lake Ohau Rd.

Those inside waited anxiously as rain started to fall.

After receiving briefings from Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) staff, they crossed the cordon line and drove to their homes, or what was left of them.

They were allowed to retrieve essential items, such as clothing or medicine, during a half-hour window during which they were escorted by firefighters.

When they would be able to return without restrictions remained unclear.

Mr Hands believed hot spot indicators had only identified a few spots around the full perimeter of the fire, and it was unclear how long it would take to be fully extinguished.

"The forecast is challenging. We’ve had most things thrown at us."

Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher said responsibility for the cleanup of the village rested with Fenz, the residents, and insurance companies.

"Ideally if we can get in with one or two contractors and get the whole thing cleared up, for that to be paid for by whatever the most appropriate mechanism is, then that would be really helpful.

"We don’t want sort of a piecemeal cleanup where people are still at risk because of tin left lying around or other hazards."

He said the Government had put no conditions on $100,000 worth of funding allocated to supporting the response effort.

"We’re looking at options, including some more general assistance to all of the affected people, but we’re trying to sort out what the highest priorities are," he said.

"The Government has kept the option open to get more if we need it, and when it comes to the cleanup we may be going back to them and talking to them about that."

Some people who lived elsewhere but owned houses in the village were travelling to the area to see the devastation, he said.

Residents were also being put up by friends, while others had left the area.

He was not aware of anyone being unable to find accommodation.

The prospect of a fire management plan for the Mackenzie Basin appeared to be news to firefighters.

There has been criticism about the potential contribution of unmanaged Department of Conservation land to the spread of the blaze.

On Monday, Mackenzie District Mayor Graham Smith said Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage told him she wanted a fire strategy developed for the Mackenzie Basin, a move he was ‘‘thrilled’’ with.

He said discussions between agencies could begin after the election.

Mr Hands said he was not aware of that when asked about it at a media briefing yesterday.

"I imagine that Fenz will have a lead in that. I’d suggest that we’d contact the minister and find out what her vision is and work with her on that."

Mr Kircher yesterday said there were some issues on land, both public and private, that needed to be discussed with the Government to prioritise and get tidied up.

 - daisy.hudson@odt.co.nz 

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