Army apologises over West Melton fire
The New Zealand Defence Force has apologised to angry residents over a fire that was started near Christchurch during a grenade exercise.
Acting Chief of Army Brigadier Peter Kelly apologised to the West Melton community this afternoon.
"We are genuinely sorry for the disruption and the angst caused by the fire to local residents," he said.
"The New Zealand Army has trained at the West Melton rifle range since the Second World War and values the relationship we have with the West Melton community."
The fire is being investigated and all live firing has been suspended.
"When planning our training, we do take into account the weather conditions, and in both cases did take preventive measures to counter these. Unfortunately, in both cases something did happen," Kelly said.
The residents had called for the Defence Force to be prosecuted for its "dangerous" decision to use a rifle range on a hot, dry day.
A grenade exercise at the army's firing range is believed to be the cause of a blaze on Wednesday that engulfed 50 hectares at West Melton before it was contained.
In a similar incident, a fire was started at Waiouru on Tuesday by Singaporean soldiers using ammunition in a training exercise.
The fire burnt through 350 hectares of bush and scrub before it was contained last night.
West Melton resident Jerry Larason believed the army should face charges for its role in Wednesday's fire.
"If a couple of kids were lighting fireworks on the lawn they would be held accountable for what they had done. Just because it's the army doesn't mean it's any less dangerous what they did," he said.
"If the army's live ammo had accidentally hit a member of the public they would be charged. This is no different."
Larason labelled the army's decision to conduct the training "bloody stupid".
"Reckless is probably too soft of a word for their behaviour," he said.
West Melton resident Suzanne Inkson agreed.
"It was cooler in the morning that day, but once it got hotter they should have realised the risk and stopped. I think they need better safety protocols in place," she said.
"I know they need to train their soldiers, but they also need to think about people's safety. There had been fires a few days before. It was an obvious risk."
Defence Force spokeswoman Zen Gregor defended the army's decision to conduct the exercise, saying it had been training at the range for a week before the fire.
"Fire risks are always taken into account and all fire precautions as required by New Zealand Army and emergency service regulations were in place,'' she said.
"The New Zealand Army had fire services at the range while our training was taking place."
Gregor said an internal investigation would be conducted into the West Melton blaze.
"The fire broke out at West Melton while training was taking place. Any investigation will aim to determine the details of the cause of the fire," she said.
"At this time we cannot gauge a time for the investigation to be completed."
Gregor said that whether anyone was disciplined over the incident would depend on the outcome of the investigation.
Larason said the internal investigation would not be enough.
"The whole thing will be whitewashed. They should have to face actual charges like you or I would if we started a fire and nearly burnt people's houses down," he said.
Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald said arson charges would be considered only if "recklessness" could be proven.
"At this stage, however, there is nothing to suggest that Defence have been reckless," he said.
"Police understand that they had a fire appliance on site in case of a spark, as they recognised the risk."
Fitzgerald said police would continue to "liaise with and access" the army investigation into the fire.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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