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.
The large forest fire, which is still spreading, is thought to have destroyed dozens of homes near Lake Ohau in the Waitaki District and may have been started by an electrical arc from overhead power lines. Around 90 people were evacuated after the blaze broke out at around 3am, and it was believed to be rapidly growing in size on Sunday morning.
It is largest of several blazes burning around Canterbury and north Otago on Sunday.
Firefighters are also tackling a large pine forest fire in Livingston, 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.
‘IT WAS OUR NEIGHBOUR’S HOUSE ON FIRE’
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.
“I haven’t had any sleep, but we’re OK. We’ve been looked after really well by everyone in Twizel they’re just amazing and the fire brigade has had people talk to us about what’s going on. It’s been really incredible.”
Brown had since driven to the other side of Lake Ohau to watch what was happening with the blaze.
“The wind is just fanning it and it’s starting all up again from Parsons Creek to Freehold Creek right at the line of the beautiful beach forest it’s just taken off.
“It’s huge and it’s heading back towards the village by the looks of it.”
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RESIDENTS AND HOLIDAYMAKERS FLEE
Hugh Spiers, owner of The Barn at Killin B&B, said his family and four guests had to take back roads to escape the blaze at 3.15am.
“We couldn’t take our usual drive because that was on fire, but we were able to take a shortcut through some rough country.”
His guests may have lost their car after it got bogged and had to be abandoned, he said.
“They were following us. We were in a four-wheel drive, they were in a two-wheel drive, and they got stuck. Their car’s still there, we suspect they’ve lost it.”
He said there was a briefing for villagers but he did not know if his home had been destroyed.
“There has been some loss of houses, but they didn’t make it specific which ones.”
The villagers have been shown overwhelming support by the people of Twizel, he said.
“Everybody has been extremely hospitable, with offers of food and care and beds.
“They are hoping that we will be able to get back into the village this afternoon.”
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.
“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.
“Fire is heading towards Quailburn Road and the Cloud Hills. Omarama is downwind and beyond that. The area burnt will affect tourism operators as the Alps to Ocean cycleway passes through the fire area.
“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.”
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.
Winds going through Duntroon, near the site of the second fire, were “very heavy” overnight, 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.
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.
Firefighters are also tackling a large pine forest fire in Livingston, south of Duntroon.
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