Increased wind speeds whipping through the Mackenzie District have grounded five of seven helicopters tackling a raging scrub fire near Twizel.
A fire chief on the ground told the Herald this morning the winds, which fanned the flames through the night at Pukaki Downs and forced six houses to evacuate, had died down at the time, but they are up against it.
“According to the weather gods, we’re in for a hell of a time,” said Fire and Emergency NZ assistant commander Steve Butler.
Ash-stained skies loom over Twizel as tourists at the Visitor’s Centre find themselves covered in smoke and ash.
Butler said the helicopters are working in two sectors.
”One sector is focused on protecting residential homes and they are working in conjunction with ground crews to strengthen the fire break in this area,” he said.
“The second sector is at the northern end of the fire and working to protect a plantation in the area.”
Diggers are also operating alongside fire ground crews to establish or widen fire breaks.
The wind is currently pushing the fire back on to itself, Butler said, but a wind shift in the middle of the day is expected to push it back in the direction it was moving last night.
A second wind shift is also expected later in the day and crews will be mindful of staying safe throughout the day, he added.
Fenz said six houses from Mt Cook Rd / State Highway 80 were either evacuated with help from police or self-evacuated last night.
No further evacuations are currently planned - and there have been no reports of property damage so far, which Butler credited to the lessons learned from the previous large fire at Pukaki Downs.
”The defensible spaces around the homes have been improved since then and this has prevented the fire spreading to homes.”
“We had a limited crew checking houses, protecting them on the right-hand rise of Mt Cook road,” said Butler this morning.
“There are a few farm buildings we protected last night and some contractor equipment - tractors, dozers that we moved out of the way. So we’re protecting a lot of assets.”
The first helicopter flight would be a reconnaissance mission to establish the size and condition of the fire, a statement from Fenz said.
They are now in the skies, fighting the blaze from the air with monsoon buckets.
Butler said his crews had found it challenging trying to drag hoses through the terrain due to a lack of tracks, changing winds were also a factor proving difficult.”
“According to the weather gods, we’re in for a hell of a time,” he said.
Fenz was alerted to the blaze at 7.45pm yesterday and 11 crews from Twizel, Mt Cook, Omarama, Burkes Pass and Lake Tekapo responded to the large blaze near Twizel.
Firefighting operations were limited overnight due to weather conditions, but ramped up as dawn broke.
According to social media posts, the red glow from the fire in the early hours of the morning could be seen from as far as Timaru and Lake Hāwea.
Two ground crews helped monitor the blaze overnight and more are arriving this morning.
The properties involved in the evacuations are a mixture of holiday accommodations and permanent homes, a Pukaki resident told the Herald.
It’s understood the houses are better protected than the blaze three years ago due to a recent clearing of trees near the homes.
Chris Rudge lives only 6km from the fires - based near Pukaki Airport and runs an aviation tourism business that frequently flies over the flame-engulfed region.
When he first saw fire crews headed up the state highway around 7.45pm, he assumed another campervan had blown over in the strong winds that evening.
”There were strong gusts south of Twizel which took out twelve power poles,” he said.
”But then a friend alerted me to the blaze - all I had to do was step outside the office and look up the road, you could see the flames very clearly.”
Rudge said the first reassurance to the Twizel public was the Pukaki canal, which acts as a “natural fire breaker” separating the blaze from the township.
Another relief, perhaps, to the evacuated properties is a recent clearing of trees and shrubs in the immediate vicinities of the homes.
”Of course, last time the helicopters saved the homes, but I fly over that area on a regular basis and they’ve cleared a lot of trees around the houses,” he said.
”It provides a big buffer, so as long as the grass is short and dry enough there should be a reduced chance of the fires reaching the houses.”
Tracy Gunn, a Twizel community board member, said the local fire service has been “very proactive” at ensuring homes previously affected by fires are better protected.
“[The service] works hard on people living in areas with lots of vegetation and pines around, that they do have adequate fire breaks,” she said.
”Even yesterday, there was something in the local update about being sensible with fires in high winds.”
Gunn said the Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat, which lost a gym in a previous vegetation blaze, has reported itself clear of any fire damage.
”They’ll be hugely relieved.”
Now, Gunn said it’s about hoping the weather shifts from yesterday’s pattern.
”Mother nature was not a happy camper yesterday with winds, earthquakes and now the fire. Let’s hope she puts something positive out there in rain later today.”
Looking out his lounge window at the time of talking to the Herald, Rudge described seeing a “column of smoke” drifting towards Twizel, but changing direction frequently due to change in winds.
”It’s still very active, I wouldn’t say it’s stable.”
SH80 remains closed, according to the Waka Kotahi NZTA website, and no detour is available.
Fire ‘destroying everything’
Herald photographer George Heard said the glow of the fire was visible from some distance away and high winds were contributing to the blaze.
“You can see the flames reaching 5-10 metres up in the air, whipping up pine trees and just destroying everything.
“The wind’s not slowing down here either. There’s a lot, the whole basin is full of smoke.”
Fenz shift manager Alex Norris said: “Crews have been standing by overnight, keeping an eye on it and seeing how it’s tracking, defending what they can.”
Fire officials are asking anyone in the area who feels unsafe to self-evacuate.
Twizel resident Jason Swain said last night that even 15km from the blaze he could see it and the “sky is alight.
“Our house, we’re on the south end of town, so we’re the furthest away from it,” Swain said.
“You can see a lot of light from it, it’s very windy so it may be fanning the flames in it.
“It might even be getting bigger than the last one which burned for days.”
Mackenzie District Mayor Anne Munro said the advice at this stage is for residents to “follow instructions”.
She said the management of the fire remains with Fenz and the instruction overnight was that “there was no need for council to be involved and to follow instructions from Fenz”.
In August 2020, a blaze in the same location ripped through the area for 12 days.
It swept through 3500 hectares near Twizel and at its peak, 150 firefighters worked to control it, along with 18 helicopters and two planes.
More than $1 million was spent battling the blaze.
Heard, who covered the 2020 fire, said it was in “exactly the same spot and almost exactly the same conditions”.
MetService forecaster Paul Ngamanu said there was a front bringing heavy rain up the lower South Island today but it was preceded by very strong northwesterlies.
Ngamanu said gusts of up to 140km/h could be expected in exposed areas, while a weather station in more-sheltered Pukaki had measured gusts of around 60km/h.
“I think the main factor of this fire will be those winds because it’s quite a warm northwesterly wind, it’s quite dry, quite warm - [great] for creating fires.”
The wind wasn’t expected to ease off until later this afternoon but the rain could help the situation, he said. Heading into Friday the winds would change direction, with MetService predicting snow in the area.