Investigators seeking cause of 'scary' fire

ABLAZE: A fire burns in the pine forest on Nelson's Centre of New Zealand hill.
ABLAZE: A fire burns in the pine forest on Nelson's Centre of New Zealand hill.

Fire investigators were back at the scene of a blaze on the Centre of New Zealand hill in Nelson this morning, trying to determine the cause.

Emergency services were notified of the fire, which covered about a hectare of pine trees on the hillside, about 7.30pm, and firefighters were at the scene until midnight last night.

Another crew was dampening hot spots from 6.30am today on the private land that belongs to Tirohanga Estates Ltd.

Waimea Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Ian Reade said a helicopter was initially used to fight the fire, to "take a bit of sting out of it" and to give ground crews a head start. The helicopter was used until nightfall.

Mr Reade said the location of the fire meant it was possibly suspicious, and this would be part of the investigation.

"We don't know [the cause] at this point; it could be any number of causes."

Firefighters were also called to a suspicious vegetation fire on the Maitai Walkway just past Nile St yesterday afternoon.

Station officer Grahame Kurth said two square metres of vegetation were ablaze. Nelmac workers had put out the fire before firefighters arrived.

Mr Reade said last night's Centre of NZ fire was mostly contained to the ground, and burnt pine needles and dead material. It did not have the "fuel ladders" to carry the fire up into the trees.

Coastal parts of Nelson had received double the usual amount of rain in the past two months, and the wet conditions had helped, he said.

Mr Reade said the Nelson Fire Service was called initially, and volunteers from Hira, Appleby and Brightwater and a crew from Nelmac helped.

Access to the fire was difficult, and vehicles were able to get to the top of the fire via the end of Ralphine Way in the Maitai Valley. Another ground crew came in from the bottom of the hill.

Halifax St East residents Pauline Esposito and her neighbour, Dawn Richardson, said they were warned of the fire by neighbours. Police also alerted them and told them to get ready to evacuate if they had to.

They loaded up their cars and left their houses for a short while.

"We had plenty of time to get out, which was quite comforting. By then, it looked as if the flames were closer," Ms Richardson said.

Ms Esposito's two university-aged children were at home. She said they had gone through the Christchurch earthquake, as well as last year's flood and now the fire.

Ms Esposito, who is still waiting for her shared driveway to be fixed following the flooding, said it was fortunate that her boarder had cleared the driveway two weeks ago, which meant she could get a car up to her house.

"I still don't have access, so that makes it even more hairy for situations like this."

Jason Petterson said he and his sister were near the top of the Centre of New Zealand about 8pm when they saw and smelled smoke. They met another couple who had turned around and said they were not taking any chances.

He said the track they initially chose was closed 300 metres from the top of the hill, so they had to go back up and then go down the Maitai Valley side.

"My sister was coughing and spluttering from the running and smoke. We couldn't see any flames. It was getting dark. It was quite scary."

The Nelson Mail