Big dry has fire crews on edge

By John Maslin

High temperatures, strong winds and a lack of meaningful rain are mixing up a lethal cocktail in terms of fire risk across the broader Wanganui region.

Fire restrictions are already in place in Wanganui and Rangitikei district council areas and similar controls are being prepared in Ruapehu and South Taranaki.

The fire indicator is sitting at the high end of moderate for the Wanganui district and rural fire staff are urging vigilance. MetService is forecasting fine weather through until the end of the month, with daytime temperatures around 25C every day.

Bernie Rush, Wanganui's principal rural fire officer, told the Chronicle that some recent rain had helped ease the fire risk but a few more days of fine weather would quickly negate that.

Mr Rush said a restricted fire season was declared on December 21 and remained in place. That means anyone wanting to light a fire has to get a permit from the fire service.

"Our staff will go and have a look at the potential fire site before any permit is issued.

Even then there may be restrictions applied to that permit or it could be disallowed altogether," he said.

"We're at the high end of moderate on our scale and a lot of big fires occur when we're in this zone," Mr Rush said.

He said a couple more days of the current fine weather would see the indicator sneaking into the high fire risk zone.

"Beyond 'high' we've only got 'extreme' to go and they're the sorts of conditions they're experiencing in parts of the South Island at present."

He said Wanganui's unique climate zone meant it could get rainfall when neighbouring districts did not and that was the case with some recent rainfall.

"The rains helped a little but then strong winds and fine days afterward soon saw the region drying out quickly. We're just reminding everyone to be vigilant," Mr Rush said.

Brent Fanning, principal rural fire officer for Horizons Regional Council, has responsibility across Rangitikei, Manawatu and Horowhenua districts and said the fire risk levels in all three was currently moderate.

"People will say the countryside looks pretty green but the reality is not quite that. It's dry and it's not going to take much more weather like we've been having to push it into the high zone," Mr Fanning said.

Like the Wanganui council, he said Horizons had declared a restricted fire season from December 21.

There was currently a total fire ban on all beaches in the coastal stretch south of Wanganui.

"And we're not issuing any permit to anyone wanting to light a fire involving large logs or stumps and slash," Mr Fanning said.

Nick Watson, Ruapehu District Council's emergency management officer, said there were no restrictions in place in that territorial authority but he expected that to change next week.

"People need to be aware the district is drying out rapidly, so common sense needs to prevail," Mr Watson said.

While the bulk of the South Taranaki district is not currently under any fire restrictions, that situation is also likely to change.

John Gunn, STDC principal rural fire officer, said the continuing dry weather and lack of rainfall, especially in areas north of Hawera, meant locals should expect to see restrictions imposed for most of the district within the next fortnight.

Mr Gunn said the council's rural fire team was called to a sizeable fire in the Okaiawa area earlier this month, which showed just how far and how quickly even controlled fires could spread.

"This fire was the result of a property owner undertaking a controlled burn of tree material, but it soon spread into three gullies and an adjourning property," he said.

The fire eventually burned through about 4.5ha of land.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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