Valley of fire - The fight to save homes from inferno

Author
Kurt Bayer and Chelsea Boyle,
Section
World,
Publish Date
Thursday, 7 February 2019, 6:14a.m.

Firefighters have been working overnight to contain a devastating blaze in the Tasman district which has burned large tracts of land, destroyed homes and killed livestock.

The fire had spread to 1900 hectares at two sites near Nelson — about four times the size of Auckland's CBD and a greater area than the devastating Port Hills fires in Christchurch two years ago.

About 235 homes had been evacuated, mostly in the Pigeon Valley region southwest of Nelson, and residents were told they would not be able to return for two or three days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will fly in today to survey the damage from a fire believed to have been accidentally started by a farmer ploughing about 30km south of Nelson on Tuesday afternoon.

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

The Defence Force was called in to provide reinforcements for firefighters who had been battling the blaze for more than 30 hours. Nearly 50 firefighters were supported by 14 aircraft, which stopped flying yesterday evening while ground crews kept working through the night to contain the blaze.

At least two homes are believed to have been lost so far. But many residents had lucky escapes.

Redwood Valley Rd resident Graeme Sutton was reluctantly evacuated on Tuesday night after noticing a "great plume of smoke ... shading the whole city".

"One or two farmers didn't want to leave," he said. "If I had a choice I would have stayed. You want to be there to defend it."

Firefighters battle the blaze at it reaches the edge of a property. Photo / Getty Images
Firefighters battle the blaze at it reaches the edge of a property. Photo / Getty Images

His family were grateful their house had been spared, he said. They had packed photos among their belongings in case they lost their home.

Tasman deputy mayor Tim King fled his home of 48 years as smoke crept closer, and he fully expected it to burn to the ground. Firefighters doused the fire just 5m from his doorstep.

"The fire crews did an absolutely amazing job," he said.

David Horncastle lives in Pigeon Hill and his family home is next to a Carter Holt Harvey tree plantation.

"Last night the flames were really, really high. The wind was coming straight at our house but changed direction."

About 235 homes have been evacuated after the blaze broke out. Photo / Tim Cuff
About 235 homes have been evacuated after the blaze broke out. Photo / Tim Cuff

He recruited a friend to make a fire break with a digger in case the flames swung back at his property. They left the property again last night, uncertain whether it would be safe.

"At 8pm the helicopters get parked up, they can't fly at night and don't start again until 6am in the morning. If any fires spark up in the night then we are on our own so we are also evacuating."

Georgina Pahl and her family were instructed by officials to leave their home on Tuesday night, just as they could see the glow of the fire in the distance.

She, her husband, Grant, and 11-year-old daughter left their home near the Moutere Highway just before midnight, when the fire was about 2km away.

"There's people in far worse situations," she said. "There's people further up the road from us. I'm aware from verbal reports from others there are definitely people we know who have lost their houses and people up Redwood Valley have got a lot more to deal with than us.

"We have got away lightly at this point in time and there's a lot of people that still don't know what's happening."

The fire's growth slowed yesterday afternoon and fire crews were confident it could be further contained as long as the wind did not pick up again. A second fire which broke out at Rabbit Island near Nelson yesterday afternoon spread over 10 hectares before being contained.

The fire in the Tasman District has now spread to 1900 hectares. Photo / Tim Cuff
The fire in the Tasman District has now spread to 1900 hectares. Photo / Tim Cuff

There was unlikely to be any help from the weather because no further rain was forecast for the bone-dry region, which has seen barely any rain in 40 days.

MetService meteorologist Rob Kerr said the area could get some rainfall on Sunday but the front heading there could lose its power before reaching Tasman.

He said January had been "remarkably" drier than last year. Only 6mm of rain had fallen last month, down from last year's total of 220mm when two tropical cyclones battered the country with rain and wind.