Fires lit in tinder dry conditions

16:00, Feb 21 2013
A fire in Old Mountain Rd is doused by helicopter
WANTON DESTRUCTION: A fire in Old Mountain Rd is doused by helicopter. Six morning fires were lit less than 6km from the intersection with Te Pahu Rd.

The person behind seven deliberately lit scrub fires in the western Waikato yesterday are putting lives at risk as the region battles with tinder dry conditions, say fire and police officials.

The string of blazes started early yesterday morning with the first at 2.40am near Waingaro, before five others - all within several kilometres of each other - were reported from 4.35am till sunrise.

However, reports of a seventh fire, on the same stretch of Old Mountain Rd, southwest of Whatawhata, came nearly 12 hours later about 4pm.

Department of Conservation staff called in a helicopter to help fight the blaze which destroyed an area of about 100 metres by 60m.

The fires threatened tinder dry conditions and burned through Department of Conservation land and a nearby farm.

Waikato district principal rural fire officer Andy Baker believes the initial fires were suspicious.


"There had to be an ignition source from somewhere. It's too cold in that hour of the morning now and they don't start by themselves."

Police also confirmed they are now investigating. Te Awamutu sub-area manager, Senior Sergeant Dave Simes, said firefighters noticed five separate fires along the left side of Old Mountain Rd, all within 6 kilometres of the intersection with Te Pahu Rd.

"The first fire was about 2.75km from Te Pahu Rd and engulfed about 500m of scrub along the roadside and destroyed 200m of fencing belonging to one farm property. The second blaze was 2km further along the road and burnt about 42m of long grass on the roadside.

"About 540m further on was a third fire that ran from the side of the road up a steep embankment. It had burnt under the greener foliage and reached the drier scrub further up. Firefighters had to climb the steep embankment to reach the affected areas and spent several hours extinguishing the various hot spots and cutting down several trees to prevent further outbreaks."

Waikato fire investigator Peter Hallet said it appeared they were deliberately lit.

"There's no other credible reason for them to start," he said.

The likelihood of someone having four smokes within 10km was low, Mr Hallet said, leaving the "credible" scenario of arson.

"Given the potential for these fires to be deliberately started you'd have to wonder at the mindset of the people that do this at the best of times," Mr Hallett said. "Let alone when the whole country's tinder dry.

"The potential for these fires to have got away into some significant DOC land and into farmland is really high. They've placed a lot of people who would have to come and deal with this in jeopardy, as well as the farmer."

Criminologist and former Auckland firefighter Greg Newbold said arsonists were a different breed of criminal.

There were three main reasons people lit fires; for insurance, to get back at somebody or cover up a crime, and ‘joyful burnings'.

"It's normally young kids who do [joy burnings]. Fire is a magnificent thing and it gives a great sensation of power to the arsonist to see that little flame blaze up with immense destructive power and it's quite awe-inspiring to them."

Mr Newbold believed the arsonists from yesterday morning's spate were likely to be young - under 20 - in a group that had probably been drinking and were unemployed. He suspected they would now be lying low and eventually grow out of their firestarting ways.

Waikato Times