More Canterbury fires a near certainty

PRESS REPORTERS
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013
Daniel Tobin

Firefighters and soldiers joined together to fight a large fire that started at the army's West Melton rifle range.

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Canterbury's fiery summer will continue as tinderbox-dry conditions not seen in years make more fires threatening people and property a near certainty.

A spell of southerly rain and much cooler temperatures this morning were expected to bring only brief respite to crews battling the latest fire at West Melton - triggered by an army shooting exercise.

The weather is forecast to stay mostly hot and dry for the rest of the month and the region would be "extremely lucky" to escape major fires until then, authorities say.

Live shooting at an army firing range was the likely cause of yesterday's fire, which engulfed 50 hectares before being contained.

The exercise went ahead despite a fire ban, which allows only permit holders to light fires. The fire spread despite a fire engine being on standby at the army site because of the extreme risk.

A soldier suffered burns and was treated for his injuries at Burnham camp.

Five properties and the West Melton aerodrome were evacuated as the fire spread northeast and threatened to jump across Weedons Ross Rd. Five helicopters with monsoon buckets, 16 engines and water tankers battled it throughout the afternoon.

New Zealand Defence Force incident controller Sergeant Greg Fagg said the fire started on the range and was soon out of control.

"The fire moved faster than the [on-site] appliance could deal with and it quickly got out of hand."

The fire was put out last nightbut 25 firefighters would work overnight damping down hot spots while excavation crews dug fire breaks. All army live firing exercises were suspended, he said.

"We have got other options for carrying out practice . . . However, conditions are much the same at those locations, so we'll be assessing the conditions and making a determination based on that."

Displaced residents were allowed to return to their homes last night but several roads stayed closed overnight as a safety precaution.

Canterbury has been plagued by wildfires this year and fire safety officer Graham Davies said conditions now were as bad as a fortnight ago, when the most devastating fire so far ripped through 150 hectares of farmland at Broadfield near Prebbleton, destroying two houses.

"We're back to that same situation of hot, dry nor'west winds. The fire danger is extreme at the moment right throughout Canterbury.

"It's definitely not going to improve until at least the end of the month. It's going to get worse. We'd be extremely lucky if we didn't [get more fires]."

The prolonged hot, dry weather was unusual, Davies said, even for a Canterbury summer.

"It's been a number of years since we've had such hot, dry conditions. We've had hot days . . . but not day after day like we had a week ago and now it's starting again."

Old West Coast Rd resident Fiona Gunn said yesterday's fire and the constant risk weighed heavily on people's minds.

"I've spent since 11 o'clock this morning in some kind of limbo space waiting for something to happen or nothing to happen."

She had packed the car in case the fire reached the large trees that had been cut down around their property and they had to leave quickly.

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Fellow resident Amy Grant said the continuing threat was taking its toll.

"It's a rather scary thing since this is the third time now there has been a fire down Thompsons Rd way in the last two to three weeks."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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