Arsonists put families' lives at risk

JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013
River Road fire

INFERNO: This unoccupied River Rd house was engulfed in flames in a suspicious fire early yesterday morning.

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Arsonists responsible for a fire that razed a red-zoned Christchurch villa are forgetting that people still live in the area, a neighbour says.

Antonia Maynard, of Richmond, awoke to a neighbour phoning about 3am to say her brother's former River Rd house, in front of her property, was ablaze.

Maynard went outside expecting to see a small fire but found the two-storey wooden house engulfed in flames.

"It was like nothing I've ever seen. It was absolutely enormous [and] the heat was phenomenal," she said.

The home was unoccupied after being red-stickered and bought by the Government.

Maynard said it was lucky there was little wind at the time because people were still living in nearly all the homes surrounding the property.

Firefighters evacuated her mother, who lives in a neighbouring house.

"People think we don't live here, but we do. We've all got kids," she said.

"If anyone had been in that house, there's no way they would have got out."

Maynard said although the house was to be demolished, "it wasn't supposed to go like that".

The arson had left her worried for her own home. "If people are thinking [the houses] are vacant and they are opportunist ... you would be worried."

Firefighters spent seven hours at the scene, dampening down hot spots after bringing the fire under control.

Fire investigator Graham Davies said the house was unoccupied when the fire broke out, but neighbours had seen squatters in the house "from time to time".

The fire appeared to have started on the ground floor, and most of the house was destroyed.

It was the third large wooden villa in a 100-metre radius destroyed in an arson in recent months.

"Because there's not a lot of people around, they get reasonably big before they are noticed," Davies said.

The fire is the latest in a series of suspicious fires in the city's residential red zone.

Davies said firefighters had callouts to the area at least once a week.

However, Fire Service assistant area commander Greg Crawford said the red zone was no more a target than other areas of the city.

He cited a spate of arsons in the Spreydon area about a month ago. He understood an arrest had been made, "which is a real positive for us".

A Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) spokesman said any suspicious fire in the residential red zone was undesirable.

Cera operated 24-hour security patrols in the red zone and worked with police and the Fire Service to try to prevent fires.

Feedback from the Fire Service was there has been no noticeable increase in arson since the February 2011 earthquake, he said.

"The experience last year was that the number of fires in the RRZ was down on previous years."

He said residents still living in the red zone should report any suspicious activity.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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