6 Feb 2015

Fight continues against Marlborough blaze

12:16 am on 6 February 2015

Fire crews will remain overnight at the scene of a major blaze in Marlborough.

Fire fighters, helicopters and planes are battling a fire west of Blenheim.

Fire fighters, helicopters and planes are battling a fire west of Blenheim. Photo: RNZ / Alison Hossain

The fire, which started last night, has scorched through 400 hectares, forcing the precautionary evacuation of up to ten homes and destroying pine plantations.

Marlborough Rural Fire Officer Richard McNamara said the flames were up to 30 metres high and have been uncontrollable for most of the day.

He said the fire had come close to properties and still posed a threat to the district's main electricity supply.

Mr McNamara said he hoped the blaze would be contained tomorrow but that was dependent on the weather.

A smaller fire in a nearby valley is now under control and will be monitored overnight.

Homes faced fire threat

Eleven helicopters have been working with more than 60 firefighters on the ground to try to contain the main fire in the Onamalutu Valley.

Flames got to within metres of some Marlborough homes and police were going around earlier today making sure no one returned if they had already fled.

The Marlborough fire, from above.

The Marlborough fire, from above Photo: RNZ / Jason McClelland

A handful of homes were under threat at Kaituna, west of Blenheim, as firefighters and helicopters worked into the evening trying to contain the huge blaze.

Mr McNamara told Checkpoint the blaze would not be contained or controlled at this point, and firefighters were focused on protecting houses.

He advised people in the Onamalutu Valley to the northwest not to try to drive out of the valley because they would have to cross the fire ground. Instead, they should clear areas if they needed to, or go to cleared areas within the valley.

Blaze one of several

At Oxford, in North Canterbury, up to 11 fire engines and a helicopter with a monsoon bucket battled a 60 hectare scrub fire south of the town, which started just before midday and was fuelled by strong winds. It has since been contained but firefighters remain at the scene.

In the North Island, 14 fire engines, three helicopters and a tanker battled a large fire north-west of Bulls. That fire, in Santoft Forest, stretched for 2km and was 400m wide before being contained late this afternoon.

Rural National Fire Authority operations manager Gary Lockyer said the season was the worst of its kind in 10 years, with 130 large-scale fires between 1 October and 31 January - up from 87 for the same period a year earlier.

"We do get these summer periods where we haven't had the rain leading in that we would have normally had, or we've had those really extreme wind events that can change things for us," he said.

"That means that going into the summer the fuels are really dry compared to what they would normally be."

The helicopter crashed in shallow water.

The helicopter crashed in shallow water. Photo: Supplied

Lucky escape

A helicopter battling the Marlborough blaze crashed into the Wairau River about 11am, leaving the pilot in a stable condition in Wairau Hospital.

The 47-year-old local pilot was refilling a monsoon bucket from the Wairau River at about 11am when the chopper went down, landing in shallow water.

He was not seriously injured and was able to walk out of the wreckage.

Precision Helicopters chief pilot Matt Newton said the pilot was about 3m about the river when he got into trouble.

"Yeah, he just was loading the bucket out of the river and the river was flowing pretty fast and it pulled the bucket back and one of the ropes hooked around the back of his skid and he couldn't keep up with it," he told Checkpoint.

"It was just unfortunate but very lucky that he's okay, that's the main thing. We're just grateful."

Mr Newton said the pilot tried to untangle the rope but the strong river current dragged the bucket downstream and pulled the helicopter to the ground.

The crash scene is about 300m from the edge of the fire at Onamalutu, which has a perimeter stretching 11km.

The fire raging on Northbank near Renwick in Marlborough.

The fire raging on Northbank near Renwick in Marlborough. Photo: Twitter / @lucywalternz

The fire was in steep, rugged country of largely plantation trees, which Mr McNamara said were providing heavy fuels for the fire.

Farmer Jeff Sewell told Morning Report he could see the smoke about 4km from his property.

"We do have forest all around us but I would anticipate that with what the Fire Service are doing, what the crews they've got on board, I would have thought that they'll get this under control before it gets to us, certainly."

Northbank Road near the fire is closed.

Northbank Road near the fire is closed. Photo: RNZ / Alison Hossain

Another resident, Juliet Spencer, who works close to the scene of the fire, said the recent lack of rain in the area had been a huge factor.

"Well because Marlborough is so dry at the moment we just haven't had a show. I'm surprised we're even getting water out of the river actually, they're lucky we've got a river quite close to it."

Ms Spencer said it was heartbreaking to see so much forestry land go up in smoke.

If you are seeing the fire and want to share pictures or video with us, please email it to: iwitness@radionz.co.nz

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