Lake Ohau fire: 'Majority' of homes in village destroyed - Waitaki mayor

4:27 pm on 5 October 2020

Fire crews have had a busy night working to protect homes at Lake Ōhau village, as well as a tree plantation, as flare-ups continue to risk further damage to the area.

Lake Ohau road closure, fire front visible in the hills.

The fire has spread into the hills surrounding Lake Ohau, up near the snowline. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

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

About 90 people were forced to sleep away from their homes overnight after up to 50 homes were destroyed by the fire. About 200 affected people gathered at an evacuation centre in Twizel.

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

By late afternoon on Sunday the fire was burning over approximately 1600 hectares.

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

Fire and Emergency's Incident Commander Steve Jones said two crews were protecting the remaining homes in Lake Ōhau Village and the other two were working in the Quailburn area.

Crews used a drone at 2am and found a significant number of hotspots, which will be targeted as helicopters and ground crews begin work in the daylight.

Eleven helicopters and nine ground crews will be attacking the fire today, with four crews continuing structure protection work.

Jones told Morning Report that fire crews had managed to stop the loss of more infrastructure overnight.

Two crews have been protecting the village, and two crews protecting a high country lodge south of the village.

He said the wind was benign heading into Sunday evening but picked up again overnight.

"We're having gusts of wind up to 60 kilometres an hour across the lake, so we had a lot of hot spots and flare ups and ember transfer so we were pretty careful to get onto that as quick as possible.

"The weather is not that conducive to good firefighting - obviously high winds, the temperature is going to get up today, humidity will drop ... which will make firefighting difficult, especially for those deep seeded embers."

By early afternoon today Jones told a media briefing that while the fire was controlled and there was a good perimeter around it, the winds were variable so they were being cautious.

Some good work had been done around saving some properties, and that work was continuing, he said.

Earlier Jones said the darkness at night revealed the extent of the fire spread.

"The fire has now pushed around and is climbing into the high country and it makes for pretty spectacular viewing for the night, but as the daylight has dawned we've seen obviously specific areas that we need to target, we have to have helicopter access into them."

Jones said the fire was approximately 4800 hectares in size and that it was contained.

He said there was minor damage to transmission lines but they are feed lines rather than the main power lines.

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

A helicopter attempts to put out the flames of a large fire in Ohau Village. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Government to provide financial assistance

The government has earmarked $100,000 to help the relief efforts in the wake of the fire.

Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage visited the village this morning to check damage.

Henare said the government would work closely with the Waitaki council to make sure the needs are assessed and supported.

"I think it's important that the local government and those people locally in the community have the opportunity to put that money to best use", Henare told a media briefing.

Watch the media briefing from the two Ministers.

Sage said 1800 hectares of conservation land had been affected. "Fire needs to be managed. We need to get fire smart in the future."

She said the government was making a huge effort on controlling wilding pines, committing $100 million over four years

She said nature doesn't start fires except via occasional lightening strikes. Managing human activity was the key.

Henare said there's been widespread property damage and loss.

"This is completely devastating for the local community. As you drive through it [the area] you can feel a sense of loss and my thoughts are with those residents who will be going through at some point in time today."

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Peeni Henare Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

It was a significant event with large property loss and damage and it was accurate to describe the area as resembling a war zone, Henare said.

Both ministers thanked the local councils, Fire and Emergency, DOC, helicopter pilots and the volunteers for their work supporting the local community.

Miracle that no one was harmed - Waitaki Mayor

Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher told First Up it's lucky residents got out when they did.

"The reality is it's a minor miracle that no one has been harmed, if it had been another 15-20 minutes it would have been a very different story."

He told roughly 40 structures have been left standing.

The town has a population of 20, plus holiday homes which are empty.

Kircher said "around half" of the houses have been damaged or destroyed.

He said it was hoped residents would get to the village at some stage on Monday to assess the damage to their properties.

"The outpouring of support from the nation has been really humbling and something that I'm also thankful of - the messages from other mayors, members of the public that we've had, and the real sympathy and empathy that people are showing is a true testament to New Zealanders everywhere.

"Thank you to everyone who has supported us in this way."

Fire was going to happen sooner or later - neighbouring farmer

Hamish Smith a farmer in the area, said the DOC reserve posed a significant risk to the area for some time.

"The trouble is you've got all this dry fuel on country that isn't being grazed anymore and the only way you get rid of that dry rubbish is fire, and this is what's happening, it's full of dry and dead fuel, dead tussock, dead grass, cut down tree slash, it's a nightmare for us as neighbouring properties.

"It's not grazed, there's no fire breaks in place, there's nothing, it's just a big 2000 or 3000 hectares of fuel."

Fellow farmer Grant Murray, who borders the DOC land on Quailburn Road, said the fire was an inevitability.

"With the land that's been shut up on our boundary, it was always going to happen sooner or later, once the fire got in there it was really going to take hold.

"When we were getting sheep out by Lake Ōhau we were right in the smoke, in the flames ... we were going through paddocks that were good when we went one way and when we turned around the other they had already burned through, so it was all go."

Lines company assisting with investigation into cause of fire

The lines company responsible for the area where the fire happened says it's assisting Fire and Emergency with investigations into what caused the fire.

The fire is thought to have been started by an electrical arc from overhead power lines.

Network Waitaki said it's working to restore power to those in lake Ōhau who are able to return to their homes.

"We are working with FENZ on when this can happen safely.

"We are also helping FENZ in their investigation into what caused the fire, It's still too early to say all we know is that the winds on Saturday night were pretty horrendous and unusual in that area," A spokesman said.

Network Waitaki said the fire is utterly devastating for the Ōhau locals who have lost their homes and our hearts go out to them.

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