Destructive storms head north

ASHLEIGH STEWART, ANNA TURNER AND TOM HUNT
Last updated 08:34 11/09/2013

Storm wreaks havoc

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Wild winds are moving north to pound central New Zealand after leaving a potentially multimillion-dollar trail of destruction in the South Island.

Gusts approaching 150kmh tore through Wellington overnight, downing trees, disrupting travel, and causing powerlines to arc.

MetService meteorologist Richard Finnie said gusts reached 146kmh on the Rimutaka Hill Rd, and by 6am it was still gusting at 130kmh on the hill between Upper Hutt and Wairarapa. At Kelburn the northwest wind was gusting to 115kmh and Mt Kaukau was at 135kmh this morning.

Fierce gales will continue pounding central New Zealand today, moving into Gisborne and Hawke's Bay from this afternoon.

Heavy rain is moving up the West Coast, and is expected to reach the lower North Island, Taranaki and the central high country this evening. Heavy falls are expected in Waikato and Bay of Plenty tonight and Auckland early tomorrow.

"This system is just plodding. It's almost like it's got cement blocks tied to the back of it. It is taking literally from about Tuesday to Friday to make its way all the way across New Zealand," MetService spokesman Dan Corbett said.

While conditions were easing in the south of the South Island, they remained very wet and windy across central parts of the country, he told Radio NZ.

The strongest winds had been across Otago yesterday afternoon and moved to Canterbury last night. "They're now moving to Marlborough and across much of the Cook Strait region." 

Rain warnings remained in place for parts of the West Coast, with the main area of rain moving north from Fiordland to Westland. Rain intensities could reach 40mm an hour, and totals could exceed 300mm.

"The main pipeline of rain is now moving in across Westland, and through the day it shifts further north, going up towards Buller," Corbett told Radio New Zealand.

A considerable amount of the rain would also be falling east of the main divide, "so even those eastward flowing rivers, they'll be flowing pretty well."

The rain would spread into the lower North Island late this afternoon and evening, while the winds would then slowly ease over central New Zealand.

"We push all of that slowly north into the North Island as we finish off Wednesday and get into Thursday," Corbett said.

RECORD WINDS LASH SOUTH

The storm-force northwest winds - a record 251.9 kilometres per hour was recorded on the Mt Hutt summit - sparked countless scrub fires, uprooted trees, snapped power poles, tore roofs off buildings and overturned a truck, while a lightning strike set a West Coast house ablaze.

Vast areas of Canterbury were still without power early this morning, including in Christchurch, Rangiora, Rolleston and Dunsandel, with outages affecting upwards of 28,000 people.

The Fire Service received about 900 emergency calls in the 11 hours from 6pm yesterday to 5am today, and 1200 calls over a 24-hour period.

A spokesman said four helicopters had been dispatched at 7am to begin fighting a large bush fire about 4km west of Amberley. 

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The helicopters had been on stand-by until daybreak because ongoing lightning strikes made flying too dangerous earlier.

The spokesman said the Fire Service was still receiving "multiple calls" this morning as people woke up and saw broken glass and damaged roofs across the region.

Firefighters had been "incredibly busy", dealing with "lots of large fires", overnight, including fires at several barns and sheds that threatened nearby homes. 

"The crews would get the fires out, then they had to rush out to new areas."

Firefighters planned to recheck the sites of serious fires today. 

"The crews are strung out and tried, but we'll get there."

Most were caused by downed power lines.

Another Fire Service spokeswoman, Karlum Lattimore, said all volunteer and off-duty staff were called in after being inundated with fire callouts.

There were so many callouts they had to prioritise those that threatened properties.

Nine fire trucks attended the Sandy Knolls Rd, West Melton fire, thought to have started from a hedge about 8pm, which was still blazing at 10pm.

About the same time, Lincoln firefighters were at a Leeston hay barn, where silage pits were on fire. The Leeston brigade was fighting a blaze at the showgrounds. In Southbridge, six trucks were sent to a late-night cow-shed fire.

In Ashburton, police evacuated homes on Jacksons Rd as eight fire trucks battled a nearby blaze that ignited about 7pm. In nearby Barrhill, more fire trucks had rushed a wood merchant's home, whose firewood had gone up in flames.

Problems had already peaked around 8pm, when a house fire was reported in Oxford, a shed caught fire in Kaiapoi, a blaze ignited in the Selwyn River bed and a tree fell on a fire truck near Dunsandel.

There was also many reports of roofs being torn of houses and trees falling on the road across Canterbury and South Canterbury, Lattimore said. Firefighters struggled to keep up as the winds re-ignited fires they had already put out.

"They're everywhere - Cave, Ashburton, Timaru, Rakaia, Mayfield, Sheffield ... this is a severe event," a Fire Service spokesman said about 5pm.

The NZ Transport Agency said several stretches of highway in the South Island were closed due to winds, fallen trees and power lines, flooding or snow.

Caution was needed on many other stretches of highway as a result of high winds or flooding, or debris flung on to roads and highways, and police warned motorists to expect delays in may parts of Canterbury.

Power was lost to The Press printing plant early today affecting production of the newspaper.

The outage meant printing started very late reducing the paper's ability to get copies to areas outside Christchurch.

Debris on the road had also made deliveries difficult within the city.

A motorist crashed into a fallen tree near Leeston this morning.

The crash happened near the intersection of Leeston and Bethels roads about 6.10am.

A St John spokesman said the driver was not injured.

"Major dust storms" had hit southern parts of Canterbury.

Trains were stopped on the Midland Line at Sheffield due to a fire on the railway tracks and poor visibility.

Roads and highways were blocked at various times of the day due to felled trees and powerlines.

Dunsandel brigade chief Ian Chatterton said things were "absolutely frantic".

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, which was being pelted by heavy rain and thunderstorms for much of the day, fire crews were called to a Fox Glacier property set alight by a lightning strike.

By 11pm, 28,000 customers around Canterbury had lost power, Orion spokesman Stuart Kilduff said. Luckily it was a "small fire" and had been extinguished when they arrived, a Fire Service spokesman said.

Line faults had mostly been centred in rural Canterbury.

Orion crews would be unable to fix the problems until at least today.

- Fairfax Media

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