Four helicopters and four rural fire crews have spent the weekend fighting fire in a pine forest on Whanganui River Rd.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) threw all the resources it had at the fire immediately, Taranaki/Ruapehu/Whanganui principal rural fire officer Nigel Dravitzski said, because there was so much forest in the area.

FENZ was called to the fire about 3.30pm on Saturday afternoon. There were multiple calls, Whanganui Station Officer Bryan Coskerie said, from both the Whanganui River Rd and the Parapara stretch of State Highway 4.

"It was very, very visible," Coskerie said.

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The fire started on the roadside, just short of Pungarehu Marae. Photo / Lewis Gardner
The fire started on the roadside, just short of Pungarehu Marae. Photo / Lewis Gardner

The fire had started by the road, not far short of Pungarehu Marae.

A fire investigator was on the scene on Sunday, looking for the cause.

In temperatures of around 26 degrees C flames spread up the hill quickly. They burned a strip up a steep slope in mature pine trees above the road.

FENZ hoped to keep it from spreading into a bigger forestry block to windward that is owned by a Māori trust.

It has no firebreaks and would be too dangerous for rural fire crews to enter, Coskerie said.

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"They would have no water and no protection, and the fire spread could be rapid."

Dravitzki was reasonably happy with fire containment by the time crews went home at 9pm on Saturday. He estimated 15-20ha had burned.

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The fire carried on overnight. On Sunday morning the temperature was around 25 degrees and wind speed 15-20km/h. There was a danger it could rise to 40-50km/h in the afternoon.

"That would flare the fire quickly. The potential for that is quite extreme for us," Coskerie said.

People stop at the Gentle Annie lookout to watch firefighting in progress. Photo / Lewis Gardner
People stop at the Gentle Annie lookout to watch firefighting in progress. Photo / Lewis Gardner

At 11am on Sunday there were about 26 people fighting the fire, and that part of the Whanganui River Rd was closed.

Rural fire crews from Taranaki, Whanganui, Manawatū and Waimarino were on the ground, with hand tools and hoses, and chainsaws to fell burning trees that could spread the fire.

Three helicopters were scooping water from the river and concentrating that water on the head of the fire as it moved east. They also moved water, pumps and hoses to ridge tops for the ground crews.

What was already burned was regarded as lost, Coskerie said.

A fourth helicopter hovered above, directing operations, and the Red Cross was on hand to provide refreshments. A heavy bulldozer was to be moved in, to create firebreaks.

Wind did rise in the afternoon, Dravitzki said, but it didn't affect the fire greatly. By 4pm it was controlled, he said, but not contained.

By that time it was moving downhill, so not as fast.

Helicopter movements were cut back, though two were still damping down hotspots. Work on the ground continued, and was to carry on overnight with a skeleton crew.

Bigger numbers would be back with the daylight on February 3. The road is still likely to be closed, and people who intend using it are warned that they may be turned back.

Fire crews will be in the area for at least two days.

There was another vegetation fire in Brunswick at about 2pm on February 2. It was extinguished in 40 minutes by the use of one high pressure hose reel.