8 Mar 2017

Power lines suspected of causing Hawke's Bay fires

1:21 pm on 8 March 2017

Power lines colliding in high winds are suspected of causing devastating wildfires in Hawke's Bay in January and February.

Hastings scrub fire

A house destroyed in the Hawke's Bay fires. Photo: John Wuts

Witnesses have described seeing power lines arcing in the wind, showering sparks onto dry grass which caught fire.

On the worst day of three weeks of wildfires, crews called in from across the country battled seven separate fires. A state of emergency was declared on 13 February.

The first major fire started Hawke's Bay farmer George Lyons' front gate, on Ruakawa Rd near Hastings, on 22 January. It burned through 15ha of farmland and severely damaged his house.

Mr Lyons said earlier that day high winds toppled a power pole just down the road which sparked a fire.

At first he could hear the power lines clashing and throught it sounded like a car backfiring, but within seconds he could smell the smoke.

"I went down to the road to investigate and I could see the lines still clashing and sparks showering down to the grass on the side of the road ... and while we tried to contain the fire, the lines continued to clash, showering sparks not quite on us but very near us."

Mr Lyons said clashing power lines could cause fires anywhere in Hawke's Bay in high winds on dry days and nothing had been done to prevent the same thing happening again at his farm.

Waimarama Rd blaze

Hastings District Council is investigating whether power lines started a blaze on Waimarama Rd that destroyed a house and 168ha of farmland.

Unison Networks said its power lines could not have started the fire, because none of its systems picked up an outage at the time the fire began.

The company refused to release what are known as tripping logs for that day to RNZ, saying an investigation was under way and it could not comment further.

But several witnesses said that on the morning of the fire there was a power cut of at least 20 minutes. Power lines run directly over the area where the Waimarama Road fire began.

Unison said its high voltage lines did not record any tripping - but that the lines running over the Waimarama fire ground zero were low voltage lines.

Hastings District Council is expected to release its investigation into the Waimarama Fire in a month.

Burnt hills and power lines in Hawkes Bay.

The fires burned through hundreds of hectares of farmland. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly