Fire crews battle forestry fire near Wakefield, south of Nelson

2019-02-06 04:35:55

As firefighters battle a blaze in the Nelson-Tasman region which has seen about 170 homes evacuated and a state of emergency declared, another fire broke out on Rabbit Island, across from Nelson Airport.

Plumes of smoke had been rising from the island, directly north of Appleby and Wakefield, where evacuees have gathered. Residents had been asked to evacuate the area and Rough Island immediately.

The Rabbit Island fire "came out of the blue" according to Grant Haywood, Fire and Emergency NZ Tasman area commander, but he said there were enough resources to address it at the moment.

Ground crews and 16 helicopters were fighting the first blaze, first called in about 2pm on Tuesday at Pigeon Valley, near Wakefield, about 30km southwest of Nelson.

By Wednesday morning, the fire had more than doubled in size spread to cover 1870 hectares, or 18.7 square kilometres. Houses had been lost in two separate areas, but there had been no reports of injury.

A contractor ploughing a paddock in Pigeon Valley was believed to have sparked the blaze. Fire authorities have confirmed the fire started near Tasman Pine Forests land on Tuesday afternoon.

Several sources have said the fire started by a contractor using a disc plough - a piece of farming equipment - in a paddock opposite the forestry block.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Grant Haywood, Fire and Emergency Tasman area commander, said he could not confirm whether the farming equipment started the fire.

A specialist fire investigator was yet to start an investigation, however it was understood the results would be known in a few days.


West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said a short flyover on Wednesday afternoon revealed the significance of the area that had been burnt.

Without quick work, this "very significant" fire had the potential to affect extensive blocks of forestry. There were clearly still hotspots within the perimeter, which was "pretty stable", he said.

Firefighters still had work ahead to get it under control and reduce the chance of another flare up.

Fire crews were attacking the blaze in a circular fashion and hitting hot spots, Grant Haywood, Fire and Emergency New Zealand Tasman area commander said. "We're still working to contain it and actually get some boundaries around it. It's of significant size. It basically goes all the way from Wakefield right down to the start of Appleby so it's a large fire."

​He said it was possible the fires could flare up again with changing weather conditions. The weather would dictate how blaze was approached by fire crews.

Haywood said they were expecting the wind to change and the temperature to come up and that they were monitoring the situation. "We're trying to get a boundary around it and trying to contain it."

There were three main strategies for fighting a large wildfire, Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) rural regional manager Richard McNamara said: direct attack, indirect attack and letting it burn out. Firefighters in Nelson would be using a combination of all three, he said.

"Although the growth of the fire has slowed with the lower temperatures and more moisture in the air this morning, the situation could change quickly if the temperatures and wind climb," said Nelson Tasman Emergency Management on Wednesday about midday.


Tasman district councillor Dean McNamara, who had been helping at the evacuation centre in St John's church at Wakefield, said the speed of the fire was "quite scary".

The Moutere-Waimea Ward councillor stayed at the centre on Tuesday until about 11pm and was back at his post from 6am on Wednesday.

Many people had arrived with food and offers of accommodation for families who had been evacuated. A man from the Four Square brought in food and other goods such as magazines.

He had also taken goods to the fire station, McNamara said.

Some of the evacuees were keen to find out when they could return home to check on stock. It was quiet at the centre in the early afternoon, McNamara said.


Earlier, an emotional Tasman district mayor Richard Kempthorne said the state of emergency had been declared at 8am for the region. It was a decision Kempthorne made in conjunction with Nelson mayor Rachel Reese.

Declaring a state of local emergency meant it was easier to co-ordinate responses to the fire, and agencies have better access to resources, and the power to make decisions.

An air force C-130 Hercules was being used to fly police officers and firefighters from Wellington to Nelson. Four firefighters and two fire engines are also being sent from Manawatu's Linton Military Camp, and will travel to Nelson via the ferry.

Three firefighters and a fire engine are also being sent from the RNZAF's woodbourne base.

Incident controller Ian Reade, of Fire and Emergency New Zealand said it was believed the fire started outside the Tasman Pine Forests Ltd plantation.

A fire investigator was due to arrive on Wednesday morning to help ascertain the cause. There was no suggestion it was suspicious, Reade said.


"Notice of potential evacuation are in place for top end of Sunrise Valley and Deep Dale Road in Upper Moutere and Pigeon Valley," a spokesperson for Fire and Emergency New Zealand said.

Some homeowners in the blocked off area had been escorted by emergency services to briefly check in on their properties - before being escorted out again. Several dozen had been waiting on Wednesday morning at the emergency services' Forward Command Point on the Moutere Highway for word on their property.


Police acting district commander Inspector Zane Hooper urged residents to make sure they and their families were safe.

"Be prepared to potentially evacuate and check on your neighbours."

People within the fire area should make sure they had access to radio or other mainstream media should evacuation should be required, he said.

Anyone evacuated and those who self-evacuated were asked to record their details with the Civil Defence Centre at St John's Church in Wakefield "so that we can have running log of where people are and how to get in contact with them".

"This is a fast-moving situation," Hooper said. "Our staff have been in the field pre-warning people around evacuation and then warning them of evacuation, going door-to-door since since yesterday."

Several Nelson residents and businesses had taken in families who were evacuated. Sue Smith, owner of Brightwater Motor Inn provided accommodation for 22 firefighters. She said Fire and Emergency NZ had asked her to put up 50 people, but she didn't have the space.

"You do what you have to do, we'll do what's right for the people. We've just closed the kitchen down, but we can fire it back up if they're hungry.

Roger Harman was one of the people evacuated from their homes, but "what can you do?"

He had lived in Redwood Valley Rd, north of the fire, for seven years. He left sheep and a cat behind. He said he was crossing his fingers for them.

He wanted to stay put for a bit, but his wife Linda insisted they go. They took papers, some photos and some cash.

They were staying in their campervan overnight. He wanted to go back home for a couple of bottles of wine but the road was closed - even to residents.

The Tasman district has experienced a long dry spell, with serious water restrictions and the fire risk is extreme.

Anyone who has concerns for their immediate safety should call 111.

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