New Zealand — Department of Conservation (DOC) staff will this morning start sifting for clues to what started a major blaze in a sensitive ecological area on the Chatham Islands.
The department confirmed yesterday that 274ha of the 423ha Wharekauri (Greenswamp) Conservation Area in the northern part of the main Chatham Island had been affected by the fire.
The peat swamp is one of New Zealand’s finest, containing several plant species unique to the Chathams, including Chatham Island bamboo rush, Chatham Island swamp aster and the endemic turpentine tree.
While the fire is now largely under control, deep-burning peat fires are expected to continue for weeks, possibly months.
DOC Chatham Islands area manager Ken Hunt told The Press there were still hotspots in the peat and “occasional flare-ups” yesterday, but department staff in helicopters were dousing them using monsoon buckets.
The fire brigade had now stood down and DOC staff working shifts were handling it.
“We’re reasonably confident we’ve got it under control now,” Hunt said. There were no indications what might have started the fire, first reported on Thursday afternoon, but the weather had been dry recently, he said.
“We will start to look into it tomorrow,” Hunt said.
“It’s been unusually dry — there’s been three weeks without any significant rain. That’s obviously contributed towards the spread of it, but if it started it is pure speculation.”
There were no fears for animals or birds living in the conservation area.
“It was a slow-burning fire and there are similar habitats close by, so any fauna would have moved out to those habitats.
“But there are one or two rare plant species,” he said. “It was the size of the ecosystem and it was a particularly good example. Because it was protected, it wasn’t grazed.
“There’s been bigger fires on the island but there haven’t been any for years now.
“From the department’s point of view it’s right at the cutting edge of protected species.”
DOC ecologist John Sawyer said there was concern that exotic weeds could colonise the area after the fire and affect the regeneration of native plants.