Cause of fire unfortunate accident

Photos: Fire and Emergency

The cause of the fire that burnt around 190 hectares on Mount Alpha on January 3-4 has now been established by Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

FEMNZ Otago Southland regional manager Mike Grant said the fire was an unfortunate accident.

“The property owner had done the right thing and put the ashes from his legally enclosed fire in a steel can for two days and thought they were cold. They were discarded and two days after this there was smoke and flame. The owner put the fire out and left the sprinkler on it all night to ensure the embers were cold. He noticed smoke and fire coming from the embers a couple of days after this and this is where the fire started.

“Embers can hold heat for up to five to six days. When hot coals are exposed to the air, it ignites the ash,” Mike said.

The fire was first reported at around 3.15pm on January 3 and crews from Wanaka, Hawea and Luggate were initially deployed to the fire.

FEMNZ personnel principal rural fire officer Graeme Still said within the first 24 hours 163 hectares burnt with 23 hectares burning overnight. The fire was contained by 8am on  January 4 with no injuries.

“Since then we have had a couple of flare ups in the middle of the fire area, which have been doused by monsoon buckets, but we have had no further activity on the perimeters.

“The last hot spot was on Tuesday January 16. We’ve had nothing on the perimeters and we are monitoring the site daily. We won’t declare it out until we get a lot of rain.”

A total of about 100 personnel including the pilots and incident management team fought the fire. This included both rural and urban firefighting crews and eight firefighting helicopters and one observation aircraft.

The helicopters with monsoon buckets were coordinated by an aerial manager located in an additional helicopter. This ensured the safety of the helicopter pilots as they undertook their work.

Walking tracks on Roys Peak, Spotts Creek and part of the Millennium Trail were closed to the public during the fire fighting and helicopter operations.

Volunteer fire crews from Wanaka, Hawea, Luggate, Dunstan and Arrowtown, Glenorchy, and specialist teams from forestry contractors, Department of Conservation (DOC), Mt Cook and Athol assisted to extinguish the blaze.

“There were around 16 specialist fire fighters from Fire and Emergency working with urban counterparts from Otago Southland.

“We have firefighters on call from forestry companies, forestry contractors and DOC who are all specially trained in this type of terrain,” Graeme said.

There have been four fires like this one in Region Five (Otago/Southland) this fire season.

“These are the fires we don’t want. When we get big events like this with livestock and property at risk, it is harder to manage. We got lucky. If the wind direction had changed it could have been a whole different story,” he said.

Graeme said a mob of cattle and many properties were saved from the fire.

“A lot of property was saved. A stock owner came and said he was worried for the safety of his cattle. We went with him and cut some fences and got a helicopter to chase them down the hill to safety. As long as we are not putting any lives at risk we will work with people to get their animals to safety.”

Mike said there were some properties that saved themselves.

“Some properties had defensible space and fire-resistant planting which helped. One property had hebes planted and the fire stopped when it got to them. If you have a green space where the firefighters can come to work safely, it’s a bonus,” Mike said.

The cost of the whole operation came to $500,000.00 and it is still being worked out who would foot the bill.

“Our main concerns are the people fighting the fire, try and save property and rescue livestock. I want to make sure my people go home at the end of the day. In this operation, we didn’t even have a turned ankle. It was a good outcome,” Graeme said.

Graeme and Mike wanted to thank the community for their generosity.

“Everyone was fantastic. Lots of business supplied goods for the firefighters. There were boxes of figs and nectarines. Locals provided food to the firefighters.

FENZ Graeme Still and Wanaka Fire Brigade would like to thank Bottle O, Meg Pawson, Trout Bar, beers from where the fire started, $50 donation from John Winder/Karen Bellow, sandwiches from the Dough Bin, Red Bull from Gin and Raspberry, public donations from New World, donation from Wanaka Heights Accommodation and tacos from Amigos.

Pictures: The aftermath of the fire. Mike Grant at the fire scene. A charred stump of a tree at the fire site. Photos: Fire and Emergency

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