Wetlands wildfire under control, says Rural Fire

ALEX FENSONE AND MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 21:45 20/11/2012

A massive fire which stretched across 400 hectares raged overnight as it took hold of conservation land at Awarua, south of Invercargill.

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A wildfire that engulfed conservation land in Southland has been brought under control, Rural Fire says.

Southern Rural Fire spokeswoman Sally Chesterfield said fire crews would tomorrow return to the area around the Waituna and Awarua wetlands, south of Invercargill, to check hotspots left by the blaze, which engulfed 480h of mainly conservation land.

Farmers Derek and Jolene Ballantine said they were able to see thick smoke and flames "exploding" from the kitchen window of their Marshall Rd property last night.

Derek Ballantine said they had seen the fire spread from Awarua Bay, near Tiwai point, all the way down to the edge of the lagoon.

"Within 20 minutes you could just see it spread."

"You can see how much of a hard task it's been for them trying to keep that under control ... We're about three or four farms back really so that's a lot of flames to be glowing in your kitchen window. It's a bit unsettling - you know you're safe but it's still that primal thing isn't it, you think 'I shouldn't be this close to a fire'," Jolene Ballantine said.

Difficult terrain and strong winds are caused problems for firefighters battling a blaze.
Early today, the fire was being fought by five crews on the ground and three helicopters dropping water on the head, or front, of the fire from monsoon buckets.

"The terrain is very wet under foot, and it is difficult to get heavy machinery into those areas," Chesterfield said.

"It's not threatening any homes, but it is threatening some significant, internationally recognised wetlands."

The fire was reported yesterday evening and firefighters fought it until about 11pm before being pulled out for the night.

Southern Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Mike Grant said the authority was alerted to the fire, in the Awarua Wetlands, about 6pm last night after it was reported by a member of the public in the area.

Investigators were trying to determine how the fire started, Grant said.

The wetlands where the fire happened host a number of  birds species, some of which were nesting.

Department of Conversation Southern Islands area manager and Southern Rural Fire District's Incident controller Andy Roberts said bird species in the manuka bush and wetlands in the Awarua Bay area included bitterns, fernbirds  and crakes.

''We are disappointed 480 hectares of wetland habitat has been destroyed,'' he said.

The Awarua Wetlands was one of the largest remaining wetlands and was recognised for its biological diversity and cultural values, he said.

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