New Canterbury fire breaks out

PRESS REPORTERS
Last updated 16:14 11/01/2013
Bev Throsby
David Hallett Zoom
GUTTED: The frame of Bev Throsby's home remains standing.

Prebbleton Fire

Prebbleton fire damage

West Melton fire

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A major fire in a Canterbury pine plantation has been bought under control but not before 300 motorcyclists had to be evacuated from a nearby speedway.

Fire Service acting area commander Dave Berry said the blaze, which started near the Waimakariri River stopbanks in West Melton, spread across 80 to 100 hectares ripping through a pine plantation.

Nine tankers, six fire trucks and three helicopters were called in to battle the inferno. 

"We've contained the fire at this stage. We've hit it hard and we've hit it fast," Berry said.

It was unclear at this stage what started the fire, which was visible from most parts of Christchurch.

He said a couple of leaseholders downwind from the fire had to be evacuated, but were able to return now.

About 300 people gathered for a sidecar championship were also evacuated.

No homes were affected.

There was also no reports of stock loss and all stock had been relocated, Berry said.

He said it was fortunate the wind was not as strong as it was yesterday.

At this stage most roads are open.

Berry said fire crews would remain on "high alert" for the weekend. He said people should remain vigilant and report any sign of fire immediately.

The West Melton blaze is the latest in a spate of fires around Christchurch, the worst of which destroyed four properties south of Prebbleton yesterday.

There is a total fire ban in the region.

300 MOTORCYCLISTS EVACUATED

About 300 motorcycle enthusiasts were asked to leave the Moorepark Speedway, near West Melton when the fire came too close.

A police spokesman said the speedway visitors left the track "pretty quickly".

"Everyone was really co-operative and I think they all understood the potential severity of it, given yesterday's events,'' he said.

Police did not think any residents would have to evacuate their homes because of the fire, near the intersection with Old West Coast Rd.

However, one local who did not want to be named, was packing up her valuables "in case we need to leave".

In the 16 years she had lived in the area she had never seen a fire ''so big or so close''.

"I'm starting to get a bit worried," she said.

"There is so much smoke. My grandson has let the hens out and I've got the dog tied up so I can grab him if we have to go."

Smoke can be seen rising in the area from the central city.

The fire follows two large scrub fires on the outskirts of Christchurch that destroyed four properties yesterday.

18,000 CHICKENS DIE

Meanwhile, yesterday's wildfires claimed the life of 18,000 hens, said a farmer.

The blazes burned around 150 hectares between Rolleston and Prebbleton, destroying homes and businesses, before firefighters were able to bring it under control last night.

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Allan Marshall and his wife Judy left their Selwyn Rd property yesterday morning, headed to Gore Bay for a holiday.

Six hours later they came back to find their livelihood in ruins.

It was believed the 18,000 laying hens they farmed all died from smoke inhalation before the flames ripped through the sheds they were housed in.

The sheds had been erected just three years ago to meet new animal welfare regulations.

Marshall said he had done everything in his power to prevent a fire in the business but there was nothing he could have done to stop yesterday's blaze.

"It was the perfect storm. We are all out of jobs basically. If we can get back up and running we will," said Marshall, who has owned the farm for 20 years and employs five staff.

Other egg farmers were rallying around to help the couple, offering them eggs so they could continue to supply their customers.

The offers of help had come from as far away as Dunedin.

'AT LEAST WE'RE FINE'

A retired builder who lost vintage cars, sheds and caravans in the fire was today counting his blessings.

Merve White was eating his lunch about 2.15pm when his partner, Pat, told him he "better take a look".  

The fire, between one and two kilometres long at its peak, was approaching the Whites' Shands Rd farm.

It tore through homes, tree lines, scrub and paddocks with livestock, spread across 150 hectares between Prebbleton and Lincoln.

"It was thick as billyo here," White said.

"I knew it was coming from the quarry. I knew once it jumped Selwyn Rd we were in line for it."

They lost vintage cars, two caravans and a shed full of tools and a freezer full of meat, but he said they considered themselves lucky.

"The house is fine and we're fine."

His daughter, Lynda White, said the house was saved thanks to helicopters "monsooning" it until about 1.30am.

The couple had lived there 20 years.

Four properties were destroyed by the afternoon blaze. Three had been confirmed as homes. The remains of a fourth building had yet to be identified.

Residents evacuated from the area yesterday afternoon were allowed back this morning to assess the damage.

Incident controller Douglas Marshall said the fire appeared to have started in the district council-owned quarry, which is leased out.

However, Selwyn Quarries managing director Stewart Callaway said the fire did not start in the quarry but in a neighbouring lifestyle block.

"It started on adjoining land and blew down across the quarry," he said. "All our trees, fencing and a building have been destroyed by the fire."

HIGH ALERT

Firefighters dampening down hot spots were on high alert today with a nor'west wind change bringing fears the fire could possibly flare up.

Principal rural fire office Wilson Brown said said yesterday's blaze was probably the worst in the Selwyn district since the devastating West Melton fires 10 years ago.

Fire Service incident controller Douglas Marshall said at the height of the fire about 150 firefighters, council staff, contractors and volunteers were involving in the effort to control the blaze.

Crews would remain at the scene overnight to monitor the conditions and provide reassurance to the residents.

"I just can't emphasise enough the job of the firefighters yesterday in very trying conditions," Marshall said.

The exact cause of the blaze was still under investigation and until that was determined no decision would be made on whether to hold anyone liable for firefighting costs.

"Like all things, we keep an open mind," Brown said.

Police helped the Fire Service with evacuations as residents grabbed what they could and left.

Brown said it was not clear how many people had been evacuated as some had done so on their own volition.

"Some of them were concerned, so evacuated to families and friends. Some couldn't go home because of the immediate danger and some didn't because they didn't have power."

There were no reports of injuries or missing people, but some livestock were feared lost.

Today, 25 Department of Conservation firefighters and fresh volunteer crews were being brought in.

"A lot of volunteers need a breather. We're hoping for a reasonably quiet day. We're in dampening-down mood this morning," Marshall said.

Those who lost their homes and went to the Lincoln welfare centre were put in motels last night.

Lincoln Hospitality was catering for firefighters, providing water and food.

Late last night, another fire broke out in West Melton, west of Christchurch, threatening homes and sparking evacuations in Halkett Rd.

It was brought under control.

CORDONS STILL IN PLACE

Cordons imposed yesterday afternoon remained in place overnight.

Selwyn District Mayor Kelvin Coe, acting as a Fire Service liaison, said the triangular cordon was in place between Robinsons, Shands and Selwyn roads.

"That's where the bulk of the fire has been contained," he said.

The blaze was "one of the more serious fires we've had in Selwyn for some time", he said.

"The full impact on people and their businesses and their livelihoods will be understood in the next 24 hours."

The area is classified as a restricted fire zone, meaning fires could be lit in some conditions.

"Even with that we still advise people to use common sense," Coe said.

- The Press

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