A fire fuelled by strong northerly winds swept out of control yesterday, burning through more than 1140ha of land near Bluff and posing a serious threat to the power supply to New Zealand Aluminium Smelter at Tiwai Point.
Smoke could be seen from as far away Lorneville, Woodlands and Stewart Island, more than 20km away, as the fire burned throughout the day.
MASSIVE BLAZE: An Invercargill fire crew at work battling the huge fire near Bluff yesterday. The fire burnt through more than 1140ha and was still going this morning. JILL McKEE/SouthlandTimes
Firefighters and Department of Conservation staff expected a late night as the fire showed no signs of burning out by 9pm.
No homes or buildings were threatened by the blaze that leapt from a farm and crossed into a DOC reserve. A big concern for firefighters was the effect the smoke would have on the smelter’s powerlines.
New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd external affairs co-ordinator David Bloor said soot from the smoke had the potential to render insulators on the pylons that brought electricity to the plant useless, leaving the pylons “live” .
The insulators prevent the electricity from the wires travelling down the pylons.
Late in the afternoon the fire kept edging towards the Tiwai Bridge that connects the smelter at Bluff.
By 7.30pm, Southern Rural Fire district principal rural fire officer Mike Grant said the fire had come very close to the bridge but it was able to be contained.
Last night concerns centred on fears the fire would spread north on Tiwai Rd. Fire crews held an all-night vigil making sure it didn’t “jump the road” , forcing an evacuation of homes, Mr Grant said.
Because of the inaccessibility of the fire there was limited firefighting done on the ground. The bulk of the work was done by six helicopters with monsoon buckets.
The Invercargill Fire Service had two crews and a tanker there and established a monsoon bucket refill site on Colyer Rd.
The fire sides were contained for most of the day. At one stage the fire front stretched for more than 1km.
It hit the edge of Awarua Bay by 4pm.
Fire crews said the fire burned erratically, making it hard to fight.
The peat-based reserve acted as a fuel for the fire as well.
By late afternoon police cordoned off Awarua Siding Rd and Colyer Rd while fire crews worked on the fire.
The origin of the fire was traced back to a day-old burnoff that had been lit by Awarua farmer Geoff Dickie. He completed a permitted burnoff of scrub on his farm on Wednesday.
Yesterday morning he noted embers smouldering and began using a digger to rake the embers.
“I only needed five more minutes and it would have been out,” he said.
But Mother Nature wasn’t so kind and as a northerly wind gained strength during the morning it fanned the embers into a massive blaze.
Mr Dickie notified emergency services and said he couldn’t believe how quick the fire raged.
Watching it develop throughout the day from his back doorstep made him “feel sick” .
The fire went through cabbage trees and jumped over three fire breaks put in by Mr Dickie.
Mr Grant last night was still working on fire plans and said crews would work until dark.