Key Points:

  • Pigeon Valley fire continued to "burn actively overnight" as it heads into its fifth day.
  • The blaze covers 2100ha with a perimeter of 27km.
  • About 100 personnel fought the fire overnight.
  • About 1000 houses and 3500 people had been evacuated.
  • With 22 helicopters battling the blazes, it is the largest aerial firefight on record.
  • It is also the largest forest fire since a blaze in Canterbury in 1955.

With winds of 50km/h forecast in Nelson tomorrow, concerns are the conditions could fan the flames of the massive Pigeon Valley fire and prevent helicopters from flying.

The fire wreaking havoc near Nelson is burning into its fifth day, covering 2100ha with a perimeter of 27km.

Nelson-Tasman Civil Defence management controller Roger Ball said anything over 20 or 30km/h winds was pushing the fire over the control line.

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Helicopters could fly in conditions of up to 50km/h winds, but they had to stop for safety reasons in winds above that, he said.

A declaration of emergency remained in place in Nelson today.

Ball told a press conference this afternoon that the situation remained "dynamic" with a risk to life, animals and property.

He said the focus remained in the area of Wai-iti, close to the township of Wakefield.

Police Acting District Commander Zane Hooper advised Wai-iti residents to prepare to evacuate.

"It is critically important that people in this area take all precautions now in relation to move if asked to by police," he said.

Hooper said if the evacuate message was given the police would be coming door to door and people needed to leave. Messages would be sent out through national media and through the EMS messaging system on mobile phones.

Just under 900 properties had been evacuated in the Wakefield area and about 200 properties in the Pigeon Valley area - a total of about 2500 to 3000 people.

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The cause of the fire was still under investigation by fire investigators and no arrests had been made, said a senior fire officer.

Ball said they could control, and contain this fire if they didn't get excessive winds and would do that in a matter of days, said Ball.

John Sutton, incident controller for the Pigeon Valley fire, said the focus was on two risky areas, including the northwestern area of the Pigeon Valley fire where the wind was currently coming from the northwest.

It was not currently posing a risk, but if the wind changed "there is a time bomb sitting there", he said.

There were currently 100 firefighters working on the fire with crew, including volunteers, being rotated to spend time with families and have a good sleep.

The control line around the parameter of the fire covered about 85 per cent of the area.

The fire "continued to burn actively overnight", Nelson Tasman Civil Defence said this morning.

"Over 100 personnel worked hard throughout the night to fight the fire and create a control line with fire breaks now right along the perimeter. There is still large amounts of unburnt vegetation within the control line."

About 3000 people have now been evacuated from their homes in Pigeon Valley and the nearby town of Wakefield. Hundreds of firefighters have travelled from around the country to assist.

With 23 helicopters battling the blazes from the air, it is the largest aerial firefight on record and the largest forest fire since a blaze in Canterbury in 1955.

At a press conference at Appleby School this morning, Civil Defence incident controller Roger Ball said there remained a threat to life and property.

He couldn't speculate on how long the emergency would last.

"The situation is changeable. It is dynamic."

Residents gather for a public meeting at Appleby School. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Residents gather for a public meeting at Appleby School. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sutton said there was high humidity and wind gusts of 30kmh expected today and 50kmh tomorrow.

"I'm worried about tomorrow. We are in quite a good place strategically, but we are in the hands of the gods tomorrow because they are predicted to be 50kmh. What can be done today will be important."

The fire is less than 10km from Wakefield. If it reaches the river flats it is only 2km away.

At the river flats there is a change in vegetation type.

"Our chances of getting the fire out are better, but you can't put people in front of the fire. It's a double-edged sword."

Police Acting District Commander Zane Hooper said 110 police staff from outside Tasman had been brought in to help. Forty police college recruits have also been sworn and sent to help.

He thanked the community for support.

Iwi had opened marae to help.

"We understand the community wanting to know how he fire started. We will be following up, but focus remains on public safety.

"If you do not have any business being in an evacuated area, don't be there."

A New Zealand Defence Force spokesman said 50 personnel had come from Burnham to help. There were also others from Woodbourne, he said.

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said "people come first, properties come second".

"Everybody involved is doing a tremendous job. This is still a very active fire.

"We're still in a very volatile situation. It is likely to be days that the volatility will still be there, even if we have good weather."

More than 100 firefighters worked overnight.

After the press conference at Appleby School, residents gathered for a community meeting.

Kempthorne thanked the 100 residents gathered for their patience.

"Everything is being done to get the fire under control.

"We are still in a state of emergency declaration and that's likely to continue for days.
I understand the stress this is causing. Talk to your family, if you're finding it hard."

Residents evacuated from their homes, threatened by the Pigeon Valley fires, during the community briefing at Appleby School near Nelson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Residents evacuated from their homes, threatened by the Pigeon Valley fires, during the community briefing at Appleby School near Nelson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He thanked Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi.

"I said we might like to set up a standing February invitation because this time last year we were here for Cyclone Gita."

A postie attended to give mail to people away from their properties.

Hooper said: "We fully understand what you're going through. Our people live in Wakefield."

A MPI spokeswoman said 350 animals were being kept at the showgrounds. There were everything from turtles to horses there.

However, local deer farmer Graeme Sutton challenged Civil Defence over not letting farmers check their livestock, disagreeing with the statement "people first, property second".

"There's something in between that and it's livestock," Sutton said.

A spokesman said they needed to control the situation.

Medical Officer of Health William Ranger said people with heart conditions should stay inside and turn off air conditioning units that draw air from outside.

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said: "We haven't lost anyone and that is the most important thing. We'll get through this."

Nelson MP Nick Smith said: "I've seen people out with chainsaws. I was shocked to see someone throwing their smoke butt out.

Large fire burning above Nelson city, diverting 5 helicopters from fighting the Pigeon Valley fire. Photo / Tim Cuff
Large fire burning above Nelson city, diverting 5 helicopters from fighting the Pigeon Valley fire. Photo / Tim Cuff

"We've got to make sure we are aware of the fire risk."

At a second community meeting for the day, in Hope later this morning, Ball said the situation was unprecedented and the state of emergency was not likely to end soon.

He said more than 1000 properties had been evacuated in Pigeon Valley and Wakefield and about 3000 people were now out of their homes.

"That's a nationally significant event."

Hooper said they did not take people out of their homes lightly, but they had to prioritise protecting lives.

Mass evacuation

Residents from 860 homes were evacuated from the town of Wakefield yesterday because of concerns that embers in the nearby Pigeon Valley were being thrown up to 800 metres.

Police have cordons and security patrols in place north of SH6 between Pigeon Valley Rd and Simmonds Rd and in the area bordered by Barton Lane, Higgins Rd and Baigent Valley Rd.

As a precautionary measure, remaining residents in Wakefield should be ready to evacuate, Civil Defence said.

Residents in the rural areas east of Wakefield who are outside the evacuation zone will have managed access from 8am to 6pm today. The New Zealand Defence Force will be running escorted convoys through the portion of SH6 that runs through Wakefield township. This will allow access through Wakefield for residents who would otherwise not be able to get past cordons on Eighty Eight Valley Rd, Totara Rd, Church Valley Rd and Bridge Valley Rd.

The highway remains closed for all other traffic.

"The escorted convoys will be running straight through the town with no stopping or diversions," a Civil Defence spokesman said.

"They is not an opportunity for residents within the evacuation zone to check on property."

Earlier in the week, 398 residents were evacuated from Pigeon Valley and one person has been hospitalised suffering from smoke inhalation.

"It is so dry and we are very vulnerable," said Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne, who urged the public to be vigilant.

"Just one spark can cause the next blaze."

A fixed-wing plane drops fire-retardant during the fight the blaze that started above Nelson city on Friday. Photo / Tim Cuff
A fixed-wing plane drops fire-retardant during the fight the blaze that started above Nelson city on Friday. Photo / Tim Cuff

A Nelson-Tasman Civil Defence and Emergency Management spokesman said this morning drones would be doing further assessment and monitoring of the fire line through the smoke.

During the day yesterday resources included 23 helicopters, two fixed-wing planes
141 personnel, a drone team and 15 heavy machines (excavators and dozers).

Many evacuees appeared to have found new shelter with friends and family. A Civil Defence evacuation shelter at Saxton Stadium was eerily quiet.

Police said they and Defence Force personnel were going door-to-door to every property in the community to make sure the evacuation was completed.

For the full list of Road Closures, visit nelsontasmancivildefence.co.nz.

A Mayoral Relief fund has been set up. Those wanting to donate can use the following details:

Tasman District Council
ASB Bank Ltd, Nelson Commercial Banking
Bank/branch account number: 12-3193-0002048-03
Include in the reference "relief fund" and your name and contact phone number.

Walters Bluff fire

Yesterday afternoon, as firefighters battled the first fire at Pigeon Valley, a new fire broke out alarmingly close to the Nelson city centre on Walters Bluff about 3pm.

Firefighters had already been diverted on Wednesday to another fire on Rabbit Island which has since been dampened.

There were suspicions the two new fires were deliberately lit.

Some of the helicopters near the city fire yesterday were temporarily grounded after a drone was sighted, prompting officials to urge residents to "please stop" interfering with their operations.

Police confirmed that a 49-year-old man was arrested in the area on a disorder offence, but would not say whether it was related to the fire.

The fire was said to have spread rapidly up a hill. Thirty-five residents self-evacuated.

Huge plumes of smoke could be seen across the city, roads were closed and cellphone coverage went down.

Civil Defence said this morning the fire was "under control" and firefighters were still there this morning.

Residents had been let back into the cordon.

Biggest fire in 64 years

The Pigeon Valley fire wreaking havoc has become New Zealand's largest forest fire in 64 years.

Bush fires on the outskirts of Nelson. Photo / Facebook
Bush fires on the outskirts of Nelson. Photo / Facebook

Fire scientist Grant Pearce said the Pigeon Valley fire was one of New Zealand's four biggest forest fires and similar in size to the Hira fire of 1981 that burned 1972ha close to Nelson City.

The largest forest fire on record was in 1946 when more than 30,000ha burned in the central North Island near Taupo, including 11,000ha of pine plantations. The next biggest was at Balmoral, Canterbury in 1955 when 3152ha burned.

Pearce, of the Scion Rural Fire Research Group, said New Zealand had also experienced a number of large grassland and scrub fires, including the Ohinewairua fire in the central North Island in 1983 that wiped out 15,000ha of tussock and beech forest.

Pearce said the fires were relatively small in international terms. Some wildfires in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales exceeded 100,000ha.

The current wildfires in Tasmania have burned more than 30,000ha.

Battling the blaze at home

Fire and Emergency NZ crew leader Nathan Palmer cut his holiday in Christchurch short to come home and fight the flames in the hills around Nelson.

The vast fire is something he has seen abroad but not come up against locally.

Working the perimeter was tough work, made more draining when dragging a hose.

"It's quite physical work," Palmer said.

Veteran firefighter Nathan Palmer has been fighting the Tasman bush fires and is pictured here at the Civil Defence operations centre in Richmond. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Veteran firefighter Nathan Palmer has been fighting the Tasman bush fires and is pictured here at the Civil Defence operations centre in Richmond. Photo / Mark Mitchell

His team were clocking off at the end of 12-hours shifts dirty but also probably relieved to get a bit of breather, he said.

Palmer has not dealt with a fire of the same magnitude in New Zealand during more than two decades of experience.

But he had seen blazes like it in Australia.

"This probably comes on par with some of that."

Palmer praised the efforts of the community who were trying to help in any way they could including preparing food.

Stress and anxiety

Civil Defence advised residents feeling anxious to look after each other.

"Anxiety is very common during an emergency event such as an uncontrolled fire," a spokesman said.

"This is a normal response to a very stressful situation. Talking to people and helping others can be both therapeutic and useful.

"Please look out for your neighbours, especially the elderly, those in ill-health, and those who live alone."

Residents who needed further support are asked to call their doctor or Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Further Nelson Marlborough District Health Board advice can be found online.

Animal Welfare

Specialist vet and animal rescue teams have been checking animals on properties in the Redwood Valley area.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is co-ordinating animal welfare efforts supported by the SPCA and the Massey University Veterinary Emergency Response Team.

The teams were able to access the properties under the supervision of police. Fire and Emergency (FENZ) checked animals for injuries and ensured they had access to sufficient water and feed for their immediate needs.

Controller Rob Smith acknowledged that everyone who had been evacuated was keen to get back and check on their homes and animals themselves.

"We had been working on a plan for managed, restricted access today but because of the change in fire conditions and the fresh evacuations, it wasn't possible for us to allow people back to check on their own stock today. If conditions allow, we aim to be able to allow restricted residential access at the weekend and will advise residents directly if this will be possible."

Anyone with concerns about animals in the fire area should phone MPI on 0800 008 333.

Weekend rain unlikely

Rain in the Nelson region is unlikely over the weekend as firefighters work furiously to control multiple fires.

The MetService says light showers are expected in the northern-Nelson region but more than 20km from the initial blaze that exploded in Pigeon Valley, near Wakefield, on Tuesday.

Fresh northern breezes coming off the sea were anticipated to ease overnight, MetService meteorologist Larissa Marintchenko said.

She said those breezes were normal for the time of year but were not helping control the spread of the fire.

"Fire is more likely to spread when it is strong and gustily," Marintchenko said.

Yesterday, the winds in the region were around 90km/h but that was expected to ease overnight.

Today, cloud and some isolated showers are forecast "but not significant and limited to the northern ranges," Marintchenko said.

Fresh light coastal winds are expected to continue this morning across the region.

A similar forecast is expected for Sunday, with light winds and little to no rain.

The weekend temperature is expected to remain in the early to mid 20s, with an overnight average of 15C.

"Scattered rain" was expected to develop on Monday but "again not significant, just light rain for the western region but not near the fires," Marintchenko said.

Civil Defence said the weather was favourable, the Pigeon Valley fire had not grown, and the intensity of the fire had decreased.

However, the situation was vulnerable to changes in the weather.

Over the course of next week, dry conditions were expected to continue mid-week with some showers later on in the week.

"Comparing this to Christchurch, which is expected to reach 30C, this was relatively low which was good for the fires," Marintchenko said.

Rain is anticipated in the southern and central West Coast from a front that will move up the South Island overnight on Sunday/Monday.

But based on the summer pattern in force since early last month, the front is expected to fizzle by the time it reaches Nelson-Tasman.