All hands were on deck when two fires broke out on the side of State Highway 2 in Tauherenikau on Saturday. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

 

HAYLEY GASTMEIER

hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz

 

Two grass fires in Tauherenikau on Saturday could have had dire consequences had tired firefighters not thrown everything they had at them.

It is thought the blazes along State Highway 2 were sparked by an old steam traction engine, which was making its way to the Featherston Christmas parade.

A power substation and a pine tree plantation had been in the path of the rapidly advancing blaze, which took a helicopter and crews from four stations to contain.

And while the fires were doused relatively quickly, Wairarapa firefighters are in desperate need of a break.

Fire service deputy principal rural fire officer for Wairarapa and Taurarua, Harry Howard said fire crews had battled a string of significant blazes across the sun-scorched region last week.

“It’s been one after another.”

Vegetation fires lasting days in Tinui, Martinborough and Pahiatua, among others less notable, had stretched Wairarapa’s fire resources.

A blaze in Manawa Rd, Tinui, on Thursday. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

“We’re pretty tired after the last week or so with the large fires we’ve had.

“We have resource, but we are quite stretched and we need some breathing room so we can rest and get our trucks in order,” Mr Howard said.

Today marks the beginning of a rural restricted fire season, meaning all open air fires from now on must be permitted.

The restrictions come at least a month earlier than usual, with an almost unheard of total fire ban by Christmas on the horizon if the dry, hot weather persists.

As of today, Greytown, Martinborough and Featherston are under a total fire ban.

State Highway 2 at Tauherenikau was down to one lane for about an hour on Saturday as firefighters from Greytown, Featherston, Carterton and Masterton battled the blazes, which began at about 11am.

Mr Howard said the most likely cause had been a steam traction engine “puffing away” towards Featherston.

“There would have been embers and what not, unburnt fuel, coming out of the smokestack.

“Inevitably a spark or two would have come out.”

It had been an open fire season at the time, so the driver had not needed a permit.

The first fire, affecting about 400sqm of grass at an olive grove just south of Greytown, was put out with a single fire truck.

“And then we had another grass fire about 200m south, which was rapidly advancing across paddocks and headed towards Martinborough via some pine trees.

“When we first arrived, it was probably about 30m by 50m.

The scorched paddock, along SH2, just south of Greytown. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

The scorched paddock, along SH2, just south of Greytown. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

“By the time we got our hoses out and started attacking, it had probably doubled or tripled in size.”

The extreme weather conditions had contributed, and the hot temperatures meant there was limited water supply with natural resources drying up.

“The crews did an absolutely awesome job managing to get the water on it before it escaped us . . . there was the pine tree plantation it was threatening, and there were high tension power lines feeding the Wairarapa, the Bidwills Cutting substation, which was in its path.”

The blaze was brought under control quickly, said Mr Howard, a senior station officer at Greytown Volunteer Fire Brigade.

“It wasn’t that big in the grand scheme of things, but it had the likelihood to get very big very quick so we needed to stop it.”

He said people needed to take extra care.

“It is very risky out there at the moment and we want people to be aware that even though it’s only the start of December, we’re looking at the type of weather we normally get in February.”

People who spotted smoke should call 111 immediately, and keep their driveways clear so emergency services could gain easy entry to callouts.

South Wairarapa District Council rural fire officer Porky Sexton said the fire risk this season was looking “deadly”.

The total fire ban in South Wairarapa means no cooking with wood fire barbecue, pizza ovens or braziers.

Mr Sexton, who spent almost three days last week battling a blaze at Dry River, warns people not to let off fireworks.

“Anything that starts, we’re going to be struggling to stop it now that we’ve got these winds.”