Arson probe into big grass fire

Arson probe into big grass fire

6 December 2008

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New Zealand — A grass fire stretching half a kilometre and another spanning 300 metres tore along Fitzherbert East road yesterday afternoon in what was believed to be an arson attack.

About 3pm six appliances, including two military tankers, were called to an area about 10km out of Palmerston North, near Aokautere School.

But they were not the first to arrive at the scene.

Farmer David Dench was working in a nearby paddock when he smelt smoke.

He jumped on his tractor and saw the smaller fire first before looking further down the road to see a mass of spreading flames.

“I drove through the smoke on my tractor – it was very hot.

“Cars kept trying to drive through the thick blanket of smoke.

“I was worried about accidents happening with all the cars driving through.”

Meanwhile Central Districts police constable Mike Yeow happened to be driving by when he too saw flames.

“Flames were 15 feet in the air.

“The smoke was so thick you couldn’t even see down the road, but the traffic just kept trying to drive through.”

He and a colleague blocked off traffic and set up diversions at Aokautere and Ashhurst.

“It was lucky we were in the area,” Mr Yeow said.

Traffic was backed up for about a 3km stretch in both directions for about 90 minutes.

Once the Fire Service put out the blaze it called on Mr Dench and his tractor to help finish the job.

Mr Dench lifted the smouldering grass so firefighters could get in underneath and put out the embers.

Deputy principal rural fire officer Graeme McIntyre said if it was not for his help it would have taken a lot longer to contain.

“With grass like this the fire gets into the roots so you need to break it up,” he said.

An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the fire but he believes it was deliberately lit.

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