Tree 'exploded' and killed sheep

Lightning strikes: Falling branches killed five sheep sheltering below this old man pine
Lightning strikes: Falling branches killed five sheep sheltering below this old man pine

A 35-metre pine tree in Wairau Valley near Blenheim split in two and burned like an inferno after it was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm last night.

At least five sheep sheltering under the tree were killed when part of the tree landed on them.

Property owner Craig Marfell went to check his irrigation system after the storm about 11.30pm when he saw the ''old man'' pine tree engulfed in flames.

''The lightning had blown the top two-thirds off; it just exploded and blew it apart,'' he said. ''It peeled it apart like a banana.''

The tree, which was between 60 to 80-years-old, was on a hill on the outskirts of Wairau Valley township, about 1.5 kilometres off State Highway 63 near Church Lane.

The trunk was about 1.5 metres in diameter. It was surrounded by grass and was only 20m away from a gorge full of scrub, Mr Marfell said.

The heavy rain had dampened the surrounding area so the flames did not spread.

At least five sheep taking shelter under the tree during the storm died.

''I chased out about 45 (sheep) that were just standing there looking stunned,'' Mr Marfell said. ''They were standing within 10m of the tree. The top of the tree had landed on some of them so it was miraculous they were still alive.''

He could see the inside of the tree through to the bottom of the trunk below ground level.

''The fire was still raging,'' he said. ''The lightening put so much energy into it, it just incinerated it.''

Firefighters arrived just before midnight and went up the hill in a 4WD to make sure the surrounding area didn't catch fire.

Wairau Valley Volunteer Fire Brigade senior station officer Ian Topp said there were no flames by the time firefighters arrived but the trunk was still smouldering.

It was too dark to dig up the tree at the time so crews returned today.

Marlborough chief rural fire officer Richard McNamara said a crew would knock down the remainder of the tree and cut it up so it wouldn't be a fire risk for the next two to three weeks.

MetService reported today that  warm and humid air helped fuel thunderstorms across New Zealand yesterday, including the tornado that hit Auckland, killing three people.

Other parts of the North Island including Rotorua and Gisborne were also hit yesterday afternoon by an intense line of thunderstorms and heavy rain.

The worst damage was inflicted near the Whenuapai air force base and nearby Hobsonville, a former air force base being transformed into a large housing estate.

The Marlborough Express