Man runs through wall of fire to safety

COLLETTE DEVLIN
Last updated 05:00 02/01/2013

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A Central Otago man suffered facial burns after he had to run through fire to escape a large blaze near his homestead on New Year's Eve.

The fire, about 1 kilometre from the rail trail near Alexandra, started in a dry riverbed on Olrig Station about 11.30pm.

Landowner Ritchie Stephens suffered facial burns while helping put out the fire.

"I was in a gully and a swirl of wind flared up in front of me and the only way to get out was to go through the fire," he said.

His treated by ambulance staff at the scene.

Central Otago principal rural fire officer Owen Burgess said three fire engines and two water tankers from the Rural Fire Service attended the fire, which took about two hours to control.

"It was quite frightening because it was pitch black at night and the fire crew could not really see," he said.

Southern Fire communications shift manager Andrew Norris said nine Fire Service units from Alexandra, Clyde, Dunstan and Tarras also attended.

Strong winds were a problem for the firefighters, he said.

The fire was thought to be have been caused by fireworks, he said.

"A witness indicated there had been fireworks in the area before the fire and this may have caused it," Mr Norris said.

Department Of Conservation Central Otago duty area officer Anita Middlemiss said DOC was the lead authority for the fire and four DOC staff helped with the final mop-up, to stop hot spots re-igniting around nearby rocks.

The landowner lost about 10 hectares of grazing land, she said.

Fire staff and police had talked to a group of nearby campers to see if they had information, she said.

Meanwhile, Cromwell firefighters were called to a 600-square-metre blaze in an empty section just after midnight, as well as a fire in pine trees at a reserve in Waenga Dr, and a vegetation fire, believed to have been caused by fireworks, near The Chalets Holiday Park.

The 600sqm fire took about 30 minutes to put out. The cause was unknown, Mr Norris said.

They also attended a small small scrub fire just after midnight at the Dunes in Cromwell.

Wanaka and Luggate fire crews were also called to a large fire at Mt Iron, near Wanaka just after 1am yesterday.

The 800sqm fire was on a hill, which made access a problem, Mr Norris said. Fire crews remained at the scene for an hour and 40 minutes. The cause of the fire was unknown, Mr Norris said.

The Clyde fire brigade was called to two small bonfires in the area, which were quickly extinguished.

A restricted fire season is in force in Central Otago.

Mr Burgess said while most people were being extra careful and obeying the fire ban, there were a few exceptions.

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"I am not sure if some people are still in holiday mode or if it's just plain stupidity when they light a fire," he said.

collette.devlin@stl.co.nz

- The Southland Times

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