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"It could have happened to anyone." Discarded ashes behind Wanaka fire

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A fire that ripped through more than two hundred hectares of land in Wanaka shows just how easy it is to start a blaze in such dry conditions.

The fire broke out on January 3rd and it took a team of 40 firefighters and eight helicopters with monsoon buckets nearly two days to bring it under control.

At one point, holidaymakers at a nearby campground were told to prepare to evacuate but thanks to the crews’ efforts and a favourable wind shift, it didn’t get to that point.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand has been investigating what caused the blaze, and has found it started from ashes that had been discarded on a property.

Region Manager Rural, Mike Grant, says a resident had been allowed to light a fire, and had taken steps to ensure the ashes from that fire were disposed of in a safe way.

"Basically, the person did all the right things. They put the embers in a bucket, then let them cool for two days before discarding them in a pit, but because of the dry conditions, it just wasn’t enough," he said.

"The embers were obviously still hot underneath, it started smoking, and before they knew it, a fire had broken out."

Mr Grant says ashes can remain hot up to six days after a fire.

"It might look like they’re cool on the surface, but underneath they’re often still hot and that’s all it takes, given the dry and the heat are so extreme at the moment."

Fire and Emergency Principal Rural Fire Officer, Graeme Still, says anyone discarding embers should put them in a bucket, and douse them with water, stirring them occasionally and letting them soak for several days.

"Every year we get several calls to fires that start from ashes, so it’s a good reminder to doubly, even triply, check them."

"Even best practice can catch you out when the fire danger is as heightened as it is now. There’s absolutely no moisture in the ground and things can escalate pretty quickly."

Mr Still says firefighters have been going back to the site of the fire every day, dampening hotspots and making sure there’s no flare ups.

He says it’s lucky there hasn’t been a lot of wind, otherwise the fire could have caused a lot more damage.

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