Check for hot spots as fire risk continues

By light of day: Rural firefighters dampen down hot spots and double check the few perimeter yesterday.
By light of day: Rural firefighters dampen down hot spots and double check the few perimeter yesterday.

Rural firefighters were to fly over the site of a spectacular night-time fire near Blenheim with a thermal imaging camera looking for hot spots.

The blaze, in Sixteen Valley off State Highway 1 near Blenheim, was spotted by a passing truck driver about 1.30am, and firefighters worked through the night to bring it under control. Seven hectares were burnt black by the fire.

Rural fire chief Richard McNamara said fire investigators were hoping to have answers today about what started the blaze.

The fire risk remained very high, he said.

"With an easterly breeze kicking in and heat building up, if anything's going to pop it will be now."

Close to 60 rural fire volunteers from Rarangi, Linkwater, Blenheim, Waihopai Valley, the Awatere and Ward fought the fire.

Deputy principal rural fire officer John Foley said access was tricky and he was very grateful for the help of neighbouring farmer Paul Kemp who guided the crews in their 4WD firefighting trucks up a steep farm track across a couple of deep eroded gullies, known as under-runners, to get to the fire. Mr Kemp and Sixteen Valley farmer Dave Western also won Mr McNamara's praise for helping the firefighters through the night.

Mr Western said a neighbour phoning in the middle of the night to say a hillside above his home was on fire brought back memories of the Boxing Day fire which raced through his Riverina Farm in 2000.

Seven hectares of his farm were burnt black yesterday. Speculating about the cause, he said: "It could have been a burning critter falling from the line."

Fire crews had the flames under control by 5.30am then focused on hot spots, Mr Western said. "The rural firefighters were very well organised and well supervised. There was nothing willy nilly, everything was planned."

In the dark of the night the fire looked a lot worse than it was, he said. It was too dangerous for a helicopter to help with fire-fighting in the dark because the burning block was crossed by a Marlborough Lines powerline and the national grid, Mr Western said.

Pilot Owen Dodson, of Marlborough Helicopters, was there at first light with a monsoon bucket but "fortunately, by then it wasn't needed".

Mr Western said a southbound truck driver dialled 111 after spotting the fire about 1.30am then waited for help to arrive.

While the fire risk was high, Mr Western thought there was less long, dry grass around at the moment than there was in 2000 when the Boxing Day fire "totalled" his 640ha farm including a 40ha forest.

Pasture alongside SH1 and the railway line was being grazed back more tightly, he said.

Marlborough Lines operations manager Brian Tapp said staff had visited firefighters' base camp but would stay away from where they were working until the job was done.