House razed, power link OK
A combination of luck and a quick response from rural fire crews to a blaze in the Marlborough Sounds stopped a potential threat to the main power line between the North and South Islands, says principal rural fire officer Richard McNamara.
Mr McNamara said the callout to Flagg Bay, at Port Underwood, on Saturday was originally for a power cut, but two helicopters were dispatched as a precaution.
The fire was well developed by the time the first helicopter arrived about 3pm, he said.
Flames had moved into the roof space of one property, which was eventually destroyed.
About five outbuildings were also lost in the fire.
It was a tragedy for the property owner but having the helicopters onsite early saved five other houses, Mr McNamara said.
"Getting resources here quickly made sure it didn't spread under the main DC [power] line," he said. "If that trips, it's big news. The last thing we want to do is cut the North Island's power off."
Four more helicopters were called in to tackle the blaze along with rural fire crews from Picton, Rarangi, Koromiko and Blenheim.
Two firefighters were injured and airlifted to Wairau Hospital in Blenheim.
One suffered from smoke inhalation while a second had bruised ribs after he tripped and fell.
Residents and holidaymakers fled their baches as the scrub fire engulfed six hectares of bush.
"It could have been a lot worse," Mr McNamara said. "We could have easily been dealing with fatalities."
Amy Lucas, who only narrowly escaped the flames with her young children, said it was the scariest experience of her life. She was playing on the beach with her three children - two aged 2 years and a 3-month-old baby - when a man told them a power line was down.
The line was hanging over the top of them and being held up by trees, she said. She got the three children into the car and drove off.
"Seconds after we heard the [fire] I looked in the rear-view mirror and the whole road that we had just driven on was totally engulfed."
Blenheim men Brent Rea and Andrew Lucas were almost engulfed by smoke when the wind changed direction.
The pair had planned to stay at Flagg Bay for the weekend.
They were diving for paua when they saw the smoke and became concerned for their wives and children.
Mr Rea said the flames were blowing away from the houses, but the smoke blew towards them when the wind suddenly changed direction. "That's when we thought it was time to get out of there."
Mr Rea said a man was cutting down a tree with a chainsaw when it fell and clipped a power line, which caused the blaze and power outage.
Marlborough Helicopters' pilot Simon Moar said he was surprised they were able to save the other houses.
He heard over the radio that one property was on fire and when he arrived about six minutes later it was "on the ground".
"It was a pile of iron . . . I didn't even know what type of house it was."
Mr McNamara said crews fought the blaze for about seven hours on Saturday and were back at 8am yesterday to get into the scrub and work on the edges of the fire.
"We don't want that re-flaring with any increase in temperature or wind," he said. "We are expecting a nor'wester [today], we want to make sure it is well and truly killed by then."
It was important for property owners in places like the Marlborough Sounds to have "defendable space" between their property and the vegetation. "Even 5 to 10 metres is going to protect that house against a flash [fire]."
The Department of Conservation supplied 10 firefighters to help dampen embers yesterday.
Deputy rural fire officer Brian Paton said they were working on really steep terrain putting out hot ash with hand tools. "It's just plain, bleeding hard work. It's really steep country, they've only been doing it for the morning and they are knackered."