13 Jan 2021

Lake Ōhau fire a catalyst for St Arnaud residents

12:51 pm on 13 January 2021

A South Island town surrounded by flammable vegetation is asking its residents to check their fire plans carefully after the devastating blaze that tore through Lake Ōhau last year.

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

Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

And it looks like other towns are following suit.

The rural community of St Arnaud had a serious wake-up call after a large fire ripped through another small settlement at Lake Ōhau several hundred kilometres further south.

The fire at Lake Ōhau was one of the country's worst, destroying nearly 50 properties.

Remnant framework of a Lake Ōhau Village home.

Remnant framework of a Lake Ōhau Village home. Photo: Supplied

In Nelson Lakes, the St Arnaud community believe it could just as easily have been their town going up in flames.

At the annual holiday BBQ held by the volunteer fire station, they explained to residents and bach owners the fire risk and asked the community to 'firesmart' their properties.

The chief of the the volunteer fire brigade, Wattie Mortimer, said the fire at Lake Ōhau brought fire safety to the forefront of their minds again.

So they have come up with several measures.

"Firstly reducing the risk in the village, whether that be fire smarting, reduction of fuels around people's houses; the issuing of paint buckets for hot ashes to reduce the risk of fires starting from people disposing of ashes incorrectly.

"And also we took a look at the fire evacuation plan and really realised that there needs to be more focus placed on the individual."

Fire wardens appointed

Resident fire wardens have also been set up to aid in evacuation if the need arises.

On top of the normal fire risk there is also another issue.

Robbie Thomson is a member of the local fire brigade and was recently appointed as the risk reduction officer.

He said because the town is on the edge of a national park there has always been a philosophy of "thou shall not cut down trees", allowing highly flammable plants to grow too big.

There are five classes of flammability for native plants in New Zealand and unluckily for St Arnaud the majority of their vegetation is mānuka and kānuka trees - which are the two species in the highest class.

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Firebreaks are being created in between mānuka and kānuka trees. Photo: 123RF

Thomson has been working tirelessly to create what is called a green break, thinning out the flammable plants allowing the less flammable species to grow.

"Having an area like the fire break where that slows [the fire] it gives you maybe up to half an hour where helicopters would come in and dip from the lake and help us to save the village.

"You've in effect reduced the fire by half."

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

A helicopter in action at the Lake Ōhau fire. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

FENZ ready to help

And it looks like other communities may be following suit.

Graeme Still, who is a national wildfire specialist, said the 2017 Port Hills fire, the 2019 Nelson fires and, most recently, the fire in Lake Ōhau have been a catalyst for communities to take more precautions and practise fire safety more widely.

In the next 20 years, he said New Zealand will see an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires.

He welcomes communities doing their bit to reduce the risk.

"For those communities that are looking at what they can do they just need to contact Fire and Emergency and we can point them in the right direction."

Mortimer said they especially want bach owners to take care while they're on holiday.

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