Wellington blaze: 'It was just a ring of fire'

PAUL EASTON AND BLAIR ENSOR
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013

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Investigations will begin today to establish whether a scrub fire that threatened homes after tearing through vast areas of tinder-dry gorse was the work of an arsonist.

About 35 residents from Rarangi Way and Happy Valley Rd in Wellington's southern suburb of Happy Valley had to flee their homes as the fire spread rapidly in the dead of night, coming within metres of about half a dozen homes.

Firefighters from across the region began to arrive at the scene about 2am yesterday. Helicopters with monsoon buckets dumped seawater from Owhiro Bay as flames leaped into the air.

Crews eventually brought the blaze under control, but there were concerns last night that strong southerly winds could cause renewed flare-ups.

Patrols remained at the scene overnight, dampening hot spots and keeping a close watch on the fire, which has burnt more than 40 hectares of land and could take days to extinguish.

A joint Fire Service and police investigation into the cause of the blaze will begin this morning. It is thought the fire began near Landfill Rd.

"Scrub fires [in the middle of the night] are very, very rarely self-ignited - they don't just happen spontaneously," Fire Service Wellington area manager Peter Dempsey said.

"That's why there will be the initial suspicion put on the blaze."

Principal rural fire officer and incident controller Jock Darragh said the fire could cost taxpayers up to $100,000.

"It looked like the world was coming to an end [when I arrived]. Massive 50-foot flames and smoke."

Resident Terri Shaw said it was a shock to be woken in the night to hear there was a fire. "It was horrible, really distressing. You could hear the crackling of the fire and see all the smoke and sparks."

Later in the morning she watched as helicopters with monsoon buckets doused a flare-up, 50 metres from her Rarangi Way house. "We really have been blessed. It could have been a lot worse." Ms Shaw praised the hard work of firefighters.

Most residents who left their homes went to Owhiro Bay School, where they were looked after and given breakfast by staff and Civil Defence volunteers.

About 7.15am they were told they could return to their homes - an announcement that was met with applause.

Resident Caroline Freer said it was very scary, and she thought she was going to lose her house. "Our neighbour rang us at 2am and told us the whole hill was on fire and we had to get out. Shortly after the police came to evacuate us."

Happy Valley Rd resident Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri said she was woken by a neighbour banging on the door, telling her to get out. "It was just a ring of fire, it was massive, and it looked like it was encroaching on the development. It was pretty scary."

She and her husband grabbed children Naia, 9, and Luka, 6, and the family cat. They left behind three chickens, 20 doves and two rabbits, but were assured by firefighters they would be OK.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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