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Police seek woman after multiple fires

Cordons were in place on Wards Line on Tuesday morning. PHOTO/MARY ARGUE

Fires spreading over hundreds of metres were well involved when emergency services arrived at Wards Line around 4am. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Police have established a crime scene and are urgently seeking a 47-year-old woman in relation to potentially deadly fires on Wards Line in Morison Bush.

Several fires ripped through two properties on the rural South Wairarapa road in a suspected arson attack early Tuesday morning.

Detective Inspector Darrin Thomson said the woman was thought to have been in the area at the time, and police were interested in any sightings of her.

The Times-Age understood the woman was known to the residents affected.

Police said they had concerns for her and advised the public not to approach her.

Thomson said the woman could have been hitchhiking or walking in the area and described her as 185 centimetres tall, of thin build, and often wearing an oilskin waistcoat and cowboy hat.

“Police have concerns for the well-being of the woman, and any sightings of her should be reported to police immediately.

“Residents of Morison Bush are asked to be on alert and to check their properties, including outbuildings,” Thomson said.

He said police were also interested in sightings of a white 2003 Toyota Corolla sedan, registration BK826, and which was found at the scene.

Five separate structures, about a kilometre apart, went up in flames shortly before 4am.

Police and Fire and Emergency [Fenz] confirmed the incident was being treated as suspicious and had launched an investigation into the circumstances, with police subsequently making public details and a photo of the woman sought.

South Wairarapa Mayor Martin Connelly said there was a significant police presence and cordons still in place at Wards Line on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s all blocked off, but there are a lot of police vehicles coming and going. It’s obviously being taken very seriously.”

Nobody was thought to have been injured in the multiple blazes. However, the residents affected were lucky to have escaped with their lives.

Connelly said he understood it was a “very close-cut thing”.

“When you have multiple fires strung out over 700 metres, and considering how wet it is and raining at the time, everybody could see it was arson.

“An accidental fire is scary enough, but to think somebody is going around deliberately lighting them is terrifying.”

An organic dairy farmer said she and her husband were asleep at the time and would be dead if not for the smoke alarms.

“We woke up to them. They saved our lives.”

Their farm shed full of machinery and a hay bale barn about 500m away were completely destroyed, with an excavator ripping down the shed on Tuesday afternoon.

The couple’s home suffered substantial damage and was thought to be beyond repair.

A neighbour described the pair as “hard workers” who had now lost everything.

“I spoke to the owner since. He was tending to his stock. He was pretty upset about it.

“He said the smoke alarms went off and he wondered what was going on. He opened a door and was pushed back by the force of the flames.

“He said he hoped the power would be back on in a few hours to get his cows milked.”

Fenz Wellington assistant commander Brett Lockyer said a two-storey home was saved at the northern property on Wards Line. However, a sleepout behind the house had been razed.

Mainstream media reported Dave Morrison woke to his dogs barking and saw multiple buildings ablaze.

He said that he thought the house was salvageable, and his first thoughts were that it was “really suspicious”.

Lockyer said it was “very rare” to have several separate fires within such a short distance of each other.

“On the balance of probabilities, there is every chance it was arson.

“We have four fire investigators on site, and Fenz is working with police.”

He said the incident highlighted the value of smoke alarms.

“It’s hard to say what would have happened [otherwise]. But when smoke is the killer, that’s what gets people first. There’s a chance there could have been multiple fatalities.”

The blazes triggered the largest response from emergency services seen in Wairarapa in many years.

Lockyer said the “resource-hungry” incident reached the fourth alarm stage in the five-level response tier.

He said Greytown Volunteer Fire Brigade, who was first on the scene, quickly escalated the response, which ultimately drew in about 15 units, including fire trucks and water tankers from as far afield as Lower Hutt.

Greytown brigade’s deputy chief officer Seth Rance said it was the biggest incident Wairarapa had seen in a long time.

“When we were responding, we saw multiple fires.

“We went to the closest house first and identified that all the occupants were outside.”

He said the flames were leaping three storeys high and the crew began pumping water directly through the lounge.

Martinborough and Featherston brigades tackled the large farm shed at the neighbouring property by siphoning water from a nearby creek.

Featherston chief fire officer Colin McKenna said the response was extensive.

“It was certainly pretty busy. Our designated job was to extinguish the implement shed.

“It was quite spectacular at times. Things were banging and crashing, tyres getting blown off rims.

“The place is a mess.”

Fenz Wairarapa group manager Craig Cottrill said given the number of structures and locations, the crews did an outstanding job.

“There is extensive damage to one house, but the Greytown crew did an amazing job of saving the first house. Crews got there very quickly.

“The first priority is always life. Then it’s a matter of weighing up the value of assets and available resources.”

He said the fires were under control by mid-morning, and co-ordination was handed to the Avalon station.

At 7am, firefighters and a tractor were seen tackling a hay bale shed.

Police cordons had also been established, and Wards Line was closed to traffic.

  • Information can be provided to police via 105 or Crimestoppers, referencing file number 221011/4122

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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