4 Oct 2020

Dozens of houses destroyed in large fire in the Mackenzie Basin

10:02 pm on 4 October 2020

About 90 people will be sleeping away from their homes tonight after at least 20 houses were damaged or destroyed by fire in Canterbury.

The Mackenzie Basin fire front from a property on Quailburn Road, near Omarama.

Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

The fire roared through Lake Ohau village in the Mackenzie Country in the early hours of the morning, spreading into nearby conservation land, farms and mountainsides.

A Mackenzie Basin farmer who has had about 2000 hectares of his farm burnt says it is terrifying how quickly a wildfire moves.

Grant Murray, the farm manager at Ribbonwood Station, said he has spent the day moving stock off the affected part of the farm, including around 2000 sheep.

"It's pretty scary, I mean specially this morning getting the sheep out how fast the fire was moving in the wind, it's pretty scary to watch how fast it's coming towards the house at the moment."

Murray said he is now waiting to see whether he will need to evacuate his home.

He said neighbours and the community have been pitching in to help each other out.

A Lake Ohau Village resident said the village now resembles a war zone, with at least 20 houses and many cars destroyed.

The MetService is forecasting strong winds for some parts of the South Island where the wildfire has been blazing.

From late tomorrow morning, MetService is forecasting another period of severe northwest gales reaching up to 130km/h in exposed places in the afternoon.

It has wind warnings in place for Canterbury High Country, Otago, Southland and Fiordland.

By late afternoon the fire was burning over approximately 1600 hectares, and Fire and Emergency (FENZ) said it had damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes in the Mackenzie Basin.

Firefighting teams were battling to stop the blaze from damaging critical infrastructure, including the main power lines servicing Queenstown and Wanaka.

About 200 affected people were gathered at an evacuation centre in Twizel by late morning.

At least 300 sheep and lambs have been killed by the fire.

This afternoon, the flames were racing south towards Ohau Downs, and a FENZ spokesperson said it was being fanned by strong westerly winds and burning through pine forest and grass.

A helicopter takes part in the fight against the Lake Ohau fire

A helicopter takes part in the fight against the Lake Ohau fire. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Up to 16 crews have been fighting it during the day, and by late this afternoon 11 helicopters and seven fire crews were working at the blaze.

Earlier today, Incident Controller Graeme Still said the high winds were still making it difficult to bring it under control.

He said the winds also mean residents can't safely return home to assess the damage, as the situation could change rapidly if the wind shifts.

Later in the day, Still said firefighters will try to keep the containment lines in place overnight, but would not be actively fighting the fire until the morning.

Two diggers and a grader are creating firebreaks, and firefighters will be in the village overnight in case of flare ups.

Resident David Stone said the small village had about 50 houses, many of which he believes have been burnt down, including his own.

He told RNZ that earlier this morning he had been standing near Lake Ohau watching a helicopter fight the fire right on the road, and three helicopters working over the village.

"We've been told it's [his house] gone. Near me is a couple who've lived here 27 years and their place two along from us, I think it's gone too.

"Sort of looking over the smoke that's coming down towards Twizel, it's very prominent to my left, it's been moving around - it's peculiar.

"There's a number of lifestyle blocks between the village and where the fire is currently. And probably they've suffered, as well."

Stone said three helicopters were putting water on the blaze over the village, and the fire had travelled down the lake.

"There's been extraordinarily strong winds here - Ohau means place of wind, and it's certainly lived up to it."

Waitaki district mayor Gary Kircher

Waitaki mayor Gary Kircher. Photo: RNZ / Lydia Anderson

Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi this morning said FENZ was calling for more resources to deal with the expected high winds.

He said he thought there would be more boots on the ground over the next 24-30 hours.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was devastating for the community.

Stone said cars had also been burnt out and the area now resembles a war zone.

The fire was being fuelled by dry tussock grasses, as it burned through the Canterbury merino farmland, he said.

The Waitaki Emergency Operations Centre has been activated; controller Peter Muldrew said people evacuated from the village were being registered at the welfare centre set up in Twizel.

Waitaki district mayor Gary Kircher said the residents from the village are in a state of shock, and there was a lot of uncertainty about when they might be able to go back to the village.

"They had to get out very, very quickly.

"It would be very understandable for them to be in that state of disbelief. I think it really hit home when I got an email with some photos from one of the homeowners with the subject line of: 'end of an era for us'.

"The Ohau Village is mostly holiday homes and homes that people want to retire to, and very much a lifestyle almost in the wilderness, and for many people that's going to be gone.

"Today they've been getting fed and watered; they've just been handed out to the local cafes and restaurants, and making sure that people are looked after in that way. This is a very stressful time for people."

He said it's suspected the fire was caused by powerlines arcing in the wind.

The police said Lake Ohau Road, off State Highway 8 in the Waitaki district, was currently closed because of the fire today.

They have asked motorists to avoid the area while emergency services are at the scene.

Senior Sergeant Paul Robertson said several agencies were now supporting the evacuees, especially those who had lost their homes.

"We've got Civil Defence on board and my understanding is that we'll be contacting Victim Support as well."

This morning police were evacuating all the residents of Lake Ohau Village, as well as campsites and other properties in the vicinity.

"The police and fire [Fire and Emergency] are currently searching through the village to make sure everyone's accounted for," a spokesperson said.

Robertson said residents were initially evacuated to the nearby Ohau Lodge. However, Civil Defence later said they were now being directed to the Twizel Events Centre.

Speaking from the Twizel welfare centre, Ahuriri ward councillor Ross McRobie said so far it appeared everyone was safe.

"There's a lot of sadness with the groups of people here... many of them have lost their homes. What they've got is just what they've got with them, some people don't have wallets, some people have got no clothes, but they've all got vehicles it appears."

Hugh Spiers, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in the area, told the New Zealand Herald he had to get out quickly after a call at 3am.

He said it was terrifying driving through the firey terrain. He was separated from his father in the dark while escaping, but had since reconnected with his family and guests, all of whom were accounted for.

Livingstone and Hurunui River fires

Meanwhile, two other large fires have been causing problems in the South Island.

Firefighters were battling a forest fire at the settlement of Livingstone, about 30km northwest of Oamaru.

Fire and Emergency were alerted at 3.15am to the pine forest blaze on MacKenzie Road. A number of homes in the area have been evacuated.

Sixteen crews, including a command team from Dunedin, were trying to bring that fire under control with help from eight helicopters with monsoon buckets.

Fire and Emergency said the blaze was being fanned by strong winds.

And a blaze that spread along the Hurunui River in Canterbury has burned through about 30 hectares, Fire and Emergency said.

Residents in the Hurunui River huts have been evacuated.

Two helicopters and five appliances were at the scene, as well as four smoke chaser units - off-road vehicles which can carry a small crew and essential equipment to places fire engines can't reach.

A fire spokesperson said crews are working to create fire breaks to prevent it spreading, but the fire was contained.

Crews expect to be working until late tonight and will be there tomorrow to continue patrolling the area for hotspots.

Firefighters battled a huge blaze in the Otago region last month.

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