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Second Nelson fire treated as suspicious

Author
NZ Herald ,
Section
National,
Publish Date
Thursday, 7 February 2019, 12:50p.m.
Firefighters battle after a blaze forced the evacuation of residents of 170 homes in the Tasman district. Photo / Getty Images
Firefighters battle after a blaze forced the evacuation of residents of 170 homes in the Tasman district. Photo / Getty Images

KEY POINTS:

  • One home destroyed by the 1900-hectare fire near Nelson
  • 182 properties evacuated, 400 people affected
  • PM Jacinda Ardern says 'difficult times ahead' for homeowners

 

The second Nelson blaze at Rabbit Island is being treated as suspicious, officials say.

A community meeting was told today that it was "possibly deliberately lit", according to Civil Defence recovery manager Adrian Humphries.

The "sad part" is that four ground crews and three aircraft had to be redirected from fighting the massive Pigeon Valley fire to deal with it.

The Rabbit Island fire blazed over ten hectares yesterday afternoon.

It's now been contained to under two hectares.

The island should reopen to the public today, Humphries said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier praised firefighters tackling the "mammoth" Nelson bush inferno as a $20,000 relief fund was unveiled.

Speaking in Nelson, Ardern said an incredible job was being done by emergency services, she said.

"It is dry as a bone."

The area had not had anything but shallow rain since early October, she said.

Arden said she felt sure everything that could be done was being done. 

"While I'm immensely relieved there's been no loss of life and want to thank all of those involved in tackling this immense fire, it's clear there are going to be some difficult times ahead until we get the fire fully under control and people back to their homes.

"I can only imagine how difficult it is to pack up what you can and to evacuate so I want to acknowledge the families who have had to do that – and I want to let you know we are here to understand how we can help in the days and weeks ahead."

Ardern said the focus remained on the "mammoth job" of containing and managing the fire.

Farmer who started fire 'mortified'

Meanwhile the farmer whose machinery is suspected to have sparked the devastating 1900ha Tasman blaze is "mortified", fire chiefs say.

FENZ incident controller John Sutton said it was almost certain the fire was the result of agricultural machinery.

The owner was "mortified", said Sutton who added it was a highly accidental event.

"A totally unintended consequence really."

Sources told the Herald yesterday that the fire was sparked by a farmer tilling dry fields at around 2pm up Pigeon Valley near Wakefield, about 30km south of Nelson.

Sutton said the blaze was still "out of control" and one property was confirmed lost to the fire, describing it as "terrible" news.

Sutton, who has flown over the area, had seen the fire brushing past homes, with house paint blistered by the heat, but the houses were otherwise unscathed.

While yesterday had been a good day, making progress in containing the fire, the firefighters had a lot of work ahead of them, with a forecast for high temperatures and winds looking ominous.

They are still officially saying the fire is "out of control", Sutton told residents at an emotional community meeting outside the fire cordon this morning.

There was work to still make a containment line around the fire, Sutton said.

"Wind is the enemy," he said.

He reassured residents he hadn't come in to "take over" but rather to offer support to the good work already happening fighting the blaze.

Twenty-two helicopters were now available for fight the inferno, he said.

"We have a big day on today - fortunately, the weather is in our favour."

Civil defence, fire and police representatives in Nelson. Photo / Chelsea Boyle.
Civil defence, fire and police representatives in Nelson. Photo / Chelsea Boyle.

Some firefighters were experiencing fatigue and they were trying to fly in more firefighters, he said.

Acting Tasman district police commander Zane Hooper said police were "very sensitive" to people being forced out of their homes.

Fire, police, and Civil Defence all reassured residents that evacuation was not a decision taken lightly, and they would get people back into their homes as soon as it was safe.

He said police had not received reports of looting, saying they had brought in 40 extra staff to man cordons, and carry out patrols and keep people and property safe.

Civil Defence recovery manager Adrian Humphries acknowledged to residents it had been an "awful time".

The fire was unprecedented for the region, he said.
When he talked about the efforts of firefighters, police, helicopter pilots and other responders, the crowd gave a round of applause.

There are reconnaissance efforts today to see where cordons could be eased or removed, he said.

However, the 400-odd residents evacuated should be planning not to get back home until tomorrow at the earliest.

If anyone needs access to their property – for livestock or other personal reasons – then they are urged to ring Nelson District Council to try and arrange some supervised access.

Difficult times ahead: PM

A $20,000 Mayoral Relief Fund for authorities battling the Tasman fire has been set up by the Government to help the community get back on its feet.

Speaking from the emergency co-ordination centre where the council and Civil Defence are leading operations, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there were difficult times ahead for people until the fire is under control.

"I can only imagine how difficult it is to pack up what you can and to evacuate so I want to acknowledge the families who have had to do that – and I want to let you know we are here to understand how we can help in the days and weeks ahead."

Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi said the Government had confirmed an initial commitment of $20,000 to the Mayoral Relief Fund, which has been set up by Tasman District Council.

He said affected local authorities had significant discretion around how they chose to set up and administer a fund, and around the establishment of disbursement criteria.

The funds were in addition to other support that may be available from the Ministry of Social Development, Housing New Zealand and Ministry for Primary Industries, he said.

"[The] Mayoral Relief Funds provide an additional way to help communities get back on their feet after an emergency."

Faafoi said local communities and councils were best-placed to know exactly what they needed so this funding can be used.

For example, to meet the needs of affected families and individuals, community organisations or marae, Faafoi said.

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said the firefighters had done a tremendous job with the priority of people first.

People with pets and stock were getting stressed and wanted to get back, he said.

Kempthorne said he was reactivating his mayoral relief fund and was going to call the family today who had lost their home.

"It's a real challenge for them."

They were not able to take things from the house, he said

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