21 Mar 2020

Arsonist posed as frightened resident forced to evacuate due to blaze

6:57 am on 21 March 2020

A man who deliberately lit fires in tinder-dry Tasman last year initially posed as a frightened resident who was forced to evacuate his home.

Clouds of smoke are seen rising from the bush fire area at Pigeon Valley this afternoon.

Clouds of smoke from the Pigeon Valley fire. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A jury at the High Court in Wellington yesterday found Benjamin Durrant and Abigail Page guilty of arson.

They were on trial for lighting a fire on the side of Moutere Highway in late February, three weeks after this country's largest wildfire started in Pigeon Valley. They also lit another fire on Pigeon Valley Road in early March.

Almost 100 homes in Tasman's Redwood Valley were evacuated when the fire, about 700 metres off the Moutere Highway, broke out. At its height six helicopters, machinery, bulldozers and crews from the nearby Pigeon Valley fire were sent to battle the blaze.

It caused extensive damage to a large area of pine forest.

Durrant was among evacuated residents and told RNZ at the time he didn't want to leave, but he was told by police if he didn't, he would be arrested.

"I didn't want to go, I wanted to water the property down. I've got quite a few valuables. They were going to arrest me, so I had to go... it was pretty much drop everything and go."

He said he wasn't prepared to evacuate and didn't have time to turn off the hoses running at his property, or get dressed properly before leaving.

"The fire just came up over the hill that quick and... if it comes this way, we just need to get out of here. We just dropped everything. I ended up leaving without a t-shirt, just my shorts. It was full on trying to get everything ready."

Fire crews contained the blaze just hours after it was lit and advised it was safe for most residents to go past the cordons again, on the provision that they would be ready to evacuate again at short notice.

A small number of residents opted not to return home immediately.

Durrant said he returned home as soon as he could because was worried about his house, and he wanted to check on his chickens.

When asked if he was worried he would have to evacuate again, Durrant told RNZ "anything's possible".

"I hope not anyway, there's a lot of grass and a big fire could come this way."

Durrant and Page were arrested after lighting another fire on Pigeon Valley Road in early March.

It was discovered by a member of the public soon after it was lit and quickly extinguished.

They were spotted by local contractors acting suspiciously in a rural Upper Moutere forestry block, not far from the scene of fire they lit the week before, and arrested later that day.

The pair will be sentenced in May.