Massive fire forces evacuations

Massive fire forces evacuations

22 November 2011

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New Zealand — About 100 firefighters are still battling a pine plantation blaze in a Far North pine plantation but it is now under control after threatening homes and forcing evacuations overnight.

Fanned by a strong northwesterly wind the blaze had spread through White Cliffs forest at Utakura, near the historic South Hokianga settlement of Horeke.

Each time one area of the fire was suppressed by five helicopters using monsoon buckets, it would jump to another and a fresh column of smoke would appear.

About 6.30pm residents on a back road inland from Horeke were evacuated after a wind shift started driving the flames toward their homes.

The blaze is thought to have started in scrub next to Horeke Rd about noon.

When the first firefighters arrived from the Okaihau brigade it was burning on a 150m front and had jumped the road. It spread quickly uphill through scrub and reached the pine plantation, threatening the home of brothers Billy and Fred Pomare.

Fred started driving towards Horeke to investigate the smoke, but soon there was so much smoke, ash and debris he couldn’t see. He raced home and called 111, then helped firefighters hose down their homes.

While they were concentrating on the home nearest the fire they didn’t notice straight away when embers set the other home next door alight.

Fred doused it with buckets until firefighters turned their hoses on it. The only damage was a charred section of back wall.

Billy said the wind was driving the fire directly toward their homes, with the flames reaching the fenceline before a wind shift sent the front up the hill.

“We’re lucky we’ve got our house still standing,” he said.

Police closed first Horeke Rd, then Utakura Valley Rd as the wind shifted.

About 25 firefighters from the Far North District Council, Department of Conservation and Kaikohe, Okaihau and Kerikeri fire brigades tackled the edges of the fire, leaving the choppers to work the forest.

A command centre and helicopter refuelling station was set up on the grounds of Maitaitaua Marae.

Around 5pm yesterday Far North principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said the fire was “spotting”, or breaking out in new areas as the wind pushed the flames into fresh fuel. Each time helicopters were directed to the flare-ups.

Firefighters were stood down as the wind dropped at dusk but would be back in greater numbers today as the labour-intensive mopping up phase began.

Whether that took days or weeks would depend on the weather, especially the wind, Mr Taylor said.

The size of the fire had not yet been determined but it was “very, very significant”, easily the biggest so far this season – and the third major blaze in the Far North in six days, after fires on the Karikari Peninsula and near Ahipara.

Far North resources were stretched, Mr Taylor said.

Last week Mr Taylor said it was only a matter of time before someone was seriously hurt or killed if the wildfires could not be halted.

An investigator was on site yesterday but it was too early to determine the cause. The Karikari fire was thought to have been deliberately lit.

People as far away as Kaikohe reported smelling the smoke yesterday and a thick brown haze reached the east coast.

About 3pm the Russell Fire Brigade was called to a fire in the Waikare Inlet, but could find nothing. It is thought residents saw the smoke from Horeke and mistook it for a fire at Waikare.

The same forest was hit by a major suspicious fire on Christmas Eve 2009. That blaze destroyed 33ha of mature pines and took 10 days to put out at a cost of more than $200,000. It also meant 38 volunteers spent Christmas Day fighting the fire instead of being with their families.

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