It is a week today since something sparked a grass fire in a parched paddock of Pigeon Valley 30kms south of Nelson. The heat soon ignited nearby forestry that had been exposed to the fierce sunshine blazing on a region that had seen only 6mm of rain in January.

Within two days last week the fire had spread to an area four times the size of Auckland's CBD. Houses on surrounding farms were evacuated and by the weekend, as the fire continued to rage, about 3000 people, including from the nearby town of Wakefield, had gathered up some belongings, and pets, and fled from forecast wind that would bring the fire in their direction.

On Sunday they were lucky. The wind did not arrive. Yesterday the Wakefield residents were told they could return to their homes last night. Fire chiefs were able to catch their breath with the fire contained though they expect the area to continue burning until March.


Destroying 2300ha of trees, it has been one of the largest forest fires New Zealand has experienced, bigger than the Port Hill fire near Christchurch two summers ago and as big as another fire near Nelson in 1981. All are eclipsed by a blaze that seared 30,000ha in the central North Island in 1946 and a fire in Canterbury's Balmoral Forest in 1955. But as with any major fire, floods or other extreme weather event today, it carries an ominous resonance with climate change.

One of New Zealand's largest forest fires appears to have been well fought. Photo / File
One of New Zealand's largest forest fires appears to have been well fought. Photo / File

Is this the sort of thing we are going to face more often? And are we capable of dealing with it? How well did the emergency services deal with them? It is too soon to answer those questions but not too soon to acknowledge the work of about 100 firefighters from around the country deployed by Fire and Emergency NZ, the Defence Force and the Department of Conservation.

They created firebreaks around the burning forest using bulldozers and chemicals dropped from fixed-wing planes while helicopters dropped water from monsoon buckets. In some places they fought fire with fire, setting trees alight to stop the inferno if it reached them. They faced the possibility at any time that the wind would strengthen and carry the fire across their defensive lines.

Credit is due, too, to the Civil Defence authorities who allowed farmers back into the evacuated areas at times to check the welfare of their stock, and allowed those evacuated to take pets with them. These are not always among the considerations of officials in a civil emergency.

The residents of Wakefield and the farming valleys for their part appear to have evacuated their homes calmly and sensibly when advised to do so. They gathered in good spirits generally as they faced the awful possibility their house and belongings might be reduced to a charred ruin.

And there was an abundance of food and other help provided by the communities receiving the evacuees. Friends and family have provided many with accommodation. It might be too soon to call the emergency over and take stock of the damage but there have been no reports of loss of life. For that we can be grateful.