Eleven helicopters and seven ground crews are battling a massive fire at Lake Ohau which has devastated the township destroying dozens of houses.
Fire and Emergency incident controller Graeme Still said the fire was burning over approximately 1600 hectares.
Sill flew over the fire ground on Sunday afternoon and estimated at least 20 homes have been damaged or destroyed in Lake Ohau Village.
Still said an Urban Search and Rescue team will be deployed to make a full assessment of the village.
* Holidaymakers flee as fire engulfs homes in Lake Ohau
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“All residents are accounted for, and we will have crews in the village overnight in case of any flare ups.
“Due to the high winds it has so far been unsafe for residents to return to their homes to assess damage. “I am very mindful of how upsetting it is for the residents. Their safety is our main concern at this time,” Still said.
Burned countryside near Lake Ohau as helicopters work to contain a blaze that has destroyed many homes.
Crews are working to steer the fire away from other structures and critical infrastructure, including the main power lines servicing Queenstown and Wanaka, he said.
High winds meant the fire had not yet been contained, and he said the situation could change rapidly with any shift in the wind, he said.
Two diggers and a grader were also being used to create firebreaks to help safeguard critical infrastructure.
Residents and holidaymakers fled in the middle of the night as the large forest fire bore down on the alpine village in the Waitaki District about 3am on Sunday. The blaze, the biggest of several burning around Canterbury and north Otago, is thought to have been started by an electrical arc from overhead power lines.
As daylight broke, the extent of the destruction was stark. Aerial footage showed rows of houses, many reduced to charred rubble.
Waitaki District mayor Gary Kircher said the video was the most jarring evidence yet of the devastation.
“I’m just very pleased and grateful that no one has been reported to be harmed in any way.
“Certainly there is a lot of heartbroken people who have lost their homes.”
He said many of the homes were holiday houses but there were also a number of permanent residents. He said quite a lot of building has happened in the village in the last five years.
As of midday on Sunday, crews were continuing to fight the fire at Lake Ohau, with six helicopters providing assistance.
The fire is approximately 200ha in size and strong winds are creating “challenging conditions” for firefighters.
Waitaki District Civil Defence emergency operations centre (EOC) spokesperson said 112 people had registered at a welfare centre operating from the Twizel Events Centre.
”The Waitaki EOC is co-ordinating welfare support. This support includes providing people with clothing, food, information, accommodation and basic toiletries for tonight,” she said.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand crews are continuing to actively fight the fire, she said.
Civil Defence controller Peter Muldrew said there are no boundaries in an emergency and the Waitaki EOC is working together with multiple agencies to support those affected.
Muldrew thanked the community for their offers of accommodation and support.
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‘IT WAS OUR NEIGHBOUR’S HOUSE ON FIRE’
Janet Brown was lying in bed as fierce winds kept her awake when she heard an alarm go off. Moments later she looked out her bedroom window to see her neighbour’s house on fire. She got the kids and fled.
Brown, who owns a holiday home at Lake Ohau, was in bed when an alarm she had not heard before went off.
“Our bedroom windows look straight out towards the fire and it was our neighbour’s house on fire and it was coming at us pretty fast, and we had a house full of kids. Luckily we were catching a flight today so we had our bags packed and we just jumped in the cars and left the house.
“Everyone was out evacuating, and we took off. It was pretty quick because when I turned around it was at the village and it started to burn at the village.”
The family were “exhausted”, she said.
LARGE FIRE, AND SPREADING
Pukaki Airport resident and pilot Chris Rudge, who had flown near the area on Sunday morning, estimated it to be 5km north to south by 5km east to west in size.
”It looks horrendous. The fire is much bigger that the Pukaki Downs fire. So, so sad for all those people who have lost their homes and baches.
“It’s pretty big. The fire starts at the underside of the lake, with flames going up the hill,” Rudge said.
“Further fires are breaking out downwind of Shelton Downs homestead so total fire area rapidly increasing in length.
A helicopter scoops up water to fight the Lake Ohau fire spreading large plumes of smoke across the region on Sunday morning.
“Four helicopters now operating in south zone and one at north end of fire. Wind is 30 to 40 knots northerly so fire spreading in southerly direction.”
“Fire extends from Parsons Creek in north to south of Shelton Downs homestead. Multiple homes have been lost in Lake Ohau Alpine Village,” Rudge said.
“Top end of fire now less active with one helicopter controlling it so very unlikely fire will extend north of Parsons Creek. Ohau Lodge therefore not affected.”
Waitaki District Civil Defence public information manager Chloe Searle said the “fire is moving in a southwest direction away from Ohau Village but it is going towards farmland so farmers are moving their stock.”
Benmore Station owner Deidre Sutherland said they had been asked to “prepare to evacuate” their farm at Ohau.
“We’re just getting everything ready to go ahead, we’re still in discussions as to whether we need to move stock,” Sutherland said.”
You can see the fire raging from where we are, the sky is really hazy.”
She said family friends had offered them a place to stay in Twizel overnight Sunday and they were working out their movements.
“There are a lot of devastated home and property owners,” Sutherland said.
Glenbrook Station owner Simon Williamson, whose farm is located between Omarama and Twizel, said his property was not affected but he could see the smoke in the distance.
Williamson said he understood the fire was now spreading through retired land.
“It’s going to burn for days and days, and there’s very little they’ll be able to do to stop it,” Williamson said.
“Much like the Pukaki fires a few weeks ago, it’s a major wilding pines issue.”
Mike Harrison says five helicopters and multiple fire appliances are at the scene of the blaze at Lake Ohau at the foot of the Southern Alps.
MORE HIGH WINDS, TEMPERATURES FORECAST
MetService forecaster Tui McInnes said the winds in the Ohau area were reaching as high as 90kmh overnight and were “still quite hefty” at the moment.
“We expect it to be very gusty and quite warm over the next few hours,” McInnes said.
“The winds might get a little bit weaker over the next day as the pattern changes, but it’s going to be fairly consistent.”
McInnes said heavy northwest winds were expected in the Ohau area over the next 48 hours, and would turn southerly on Tuesday, resulting in a “massive drop” in maximum temperatures.
Police have evacuated residents of Lake Ohau Village, campsites and other properties in the area.
Mackenzie District mayor Graham Smith said his council was assisting the Waitaki District Council with its response to the fire.
“We already have about 90 people at the welfare centre in Twizel, while we have made the airport in Pukaki available,” Smith said.
“We’re trying to offer as much support as possible, this is a very serious fire, my thoughts go out to those property owners affected.”
FIRST CALL OUT
Fire and Emergency crews were alerted at 3.20am to the pine forest blaze, which is about 25km from Twizel.
Waitaki District mayor Gary Kircher said he believed some houses were destroyed before firefighters arrived.
“The theory at the moment is it might have been started by power lines arcing and there have been gale force winds up there, right through to the coast,” he said.
“There are around 70 houses there, but the (number of) permanent residents is around 20 or 30. There are a lot of holiday homes. Being a weekend, there would be more people there.”
Sixteen fire crews are tackling the blaze and people are asked to stay away from the area. The evacuation point is the Twizel Events Centre.
Lake Ohau Road, off SH8, is currently closed and motorists should avoid the area while emergency services are at the scene.
FIRES BURNING ACROSS CANTERBURY, NORTH OTAGO
Firefighters are also tackling a large pine forest fire in Livingstone, south of Duntroon. The blaze is close to Mckenzie Rd and also started around 3.15am. Sixteen crews and a command unit from Dunedin are in attendance and eight helicopters are assisting. Nearby properties have been evacuated.
The blaze is close to Mckenzie Road and also started around 3.15am.
16 crews and a command unit from Dunedin are in attendance and 8 helicopters are assisting.
Nearby properties have been evacuated.
Winds going through Duntroon, near the site of the second fire, were “very heavy” overnight, MetService forecaster Tui McInnes said, reaching speeds up to 110kmh and were currently sitting about 85kmh.
He expected these patterns to remain in place over the next few hours, while temperatures in that area would also remain warm.
A third fire is being tackled on Hurunui Mouth Rd, close to Domett in north Canterbury, which is being fanned by strong winds.
Nine fire engines and three helicopters have been deployed and the Hurunui River Huts have been evacuated as a precaution.
People are asked to stay away from the area.