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Nelson fire: Anxious night for Wakefield residents as they prepare to evacuate

Feb 08, 2019

Wakefield residents between Pigeon Valley and Arnold Lane have been on standby overnight in case they were told to evacuate.

Authorities talked to Nelson residents this morning about what they should do and what assistance is available to them. RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Resident meeting with authorities and officials this morning for a briefing on the civil defence emergency that was declared because of the bush fire. RNZ / Simon Rogers

Police last night called it "a precautionary warning".

"We ask that people keep their phones on tonight should we need to contact them," a police spokesperson said.

"There is a probability that a text alert may be sent."

People have been asked to read emergency text messages clearly.

People in Wakefield are being asked to take precautionary measures of remove flammable items from around houses including deck furniture and doors mats, dampen dry areas and to keep indoors with doors and windows closed.

A change in weather conditions has meant the fire has picked up, however Defence Minister Kris Faafoi said no more resources were needed in the operation for now.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand said inspection of the fire fronts in Tasman showed the burned area covered 1600 hectares inside a perimeter of 23km.

Emergency crews have been creating chemical fire breaks with fixed wing planes, digging firebreaks with bulldozers and digging reservoirs for the helicopters operating monsoon buckets.

Fourty four firefighters will be battling the Pigeon Valley blaze overnight and five bulldozers, four excavators, and three tankers will be used to suppress any fire within 10m to 30m of the perimeter from spreading.

An additional three crews and heavy machinery will be arriving tomorrow to assist.

Tomorrow, it is expected that wind will pick up with warm temperatures and low humidity.

More than 200 properties have been evacuated overall, affecting about 400 residents. One home has been lost and several others damaged by the fire's intense heat.

Mr Faafoi said even with more helicopters in the air, they could not bring the fire under control any more quickly.

"We've asked both the Civil Defence crew and the FENZ crew if they need anything more and they're happy that they've got anything they need with the size of the fire at the moment.

"Because it's not just more resources, it's about being able to manage that. It's taken some management to be able to keep 16 helicopters operational for the time that they can."

Tasman Fire Incident Controller John Sutton told Checkpoint that it was time that was needed rather than more resources.

"Fortunately, water is reasonably close to where it's needed on the fire, so that's not the problem, it's just a matter of getting enough of it on there.

"We've been predicting these wind events, this actually did happen a little earlier than we expected today. Our strategy that we've been putting in place for the last two days, is trying to give us a little bit of depth on our perimeter so that we're able to defend that.

"Another day before the wind strengthened would be the best thing we could possibly ask for."

He said he was optimistic about their efforts to extinguish the blaze

"At the moment, where the fire activity is occurring is actually still within the perimeter of the fire, but it's very close. So where we're working very closely to try and keep it within the perimeter."

It would be possible further evacuations could be ordered if the wind progressed tomorrow near the blaze, he said

This morning Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Mr Faafoi and MP for West Coast Tasman Damien O'Connor travelled to the Emergency Co-ordination Centre where Tasman District Council and Civil Defence are leading operations.

The government confirmed an initial commitment of $20,000 to the Mayoral Relief Fund, which had been set up by Tasman District Council.

Mr Faafoi said affected local authorities had significant discretion around how they choose to set up and administer the fund, and around the establishment of disbursement criteria.

In the afternoon, Civil Defence Emergency Management Group Controller Roger Ball said favourable weather conditions had prevented the fire from spreading.

Mr Ball said the situation remained vulnerable if the weather conditions changed.

Teapot Valley evacuation: 'It's pretty ominous'

However, a further evacuation was ordered a couple of hours later in the west side of Teapot Valley, with about 25 properties affected.

Civil Defence said this was a precautionary measure because of the increased fire intensity and increased wind and humidity.

Tasman Fire Incident Controller John Sutton told Checkpoint the change in conditions was behind the new evacuation order.

"The wind shifted to the northerly direction and increased in wind speed, we've been getting winds up to 35 km/h, gusting to 45[km/h]. That really does start putting pressure on us, because that'll increase the fire activity and start pressuring the perimeter line of the fire burn."

RNZ reporter Alex Ashton told Checkpoint there was a steady stream of cars going in and out of the area that's being evacuated, at Teapot Valley Road.

He said one resident was escorted back in to get her horse.

Resident Simon Marshall, inside the cordon, first evacuated on Tuesday but had since returned inside the cordon.

He told Checkpoint it looked like the flames were about 1km away, at most, from his property.

"It's pretty ominous really, it's a bit of a serious sight that's for sure," he said.

"It's definitely coming closer. There's a lot of helicopters running here at the moment, to the extent I just saw on queuing, waiting behind another helicopter before it dropped down to pick up water with a monsoon water out of a pond here.

"There's a bit of a breeze, not a strong breeze but it's a hot day. The smoke looks like there's something roaring away there just over the ridge."

Police assisted with the evacuation and Red Cross staff were on the ground to support residents.

Only one cordon lifted

Cordons remain in place at a number of locations, but assessments of the affected areas are due to start later today.

One of a number of fire cordons was lifted today, allowing some residents back to their homes.

Spokesman Mike Grant said a cordon near Redwood Valley would be lifted at 5pm today.

"All but one cordon will be staying in place but at 5pm we're removing the cordon on Mailing Road and that's because the area has been deemed safe for people to re-enter and do some assessments."

He said it was possible that some areas would be contained later this evening.

"It's a long-haul game, it's so dry so we're actually dealing with a lot fire that's burning underground. The easy stuff is what we can see, the hard stuff is what we can't so and so that's going to take quite a lot of time."

Tomorrow's forecast of wind and heat would test some of the fire's boundaries, Mr Grant said.

Ground crews were expected to be scaled down overnight, he said.

Richmond Community Patrol are appealing for donations of baking, bottled water, lollies and toilet paper, to keep fire fighters stocked while they battle the blaze.

The group has already distributed a boot-load of supplies they say were well-received, and will be accepting more donations tomorrow morning at the Nelson Suburbs Football Club rooms.

Financial support is also being offered to Westpac bank customers affected by the fire.

Westpac is offering its Nelson customers a relief package including a temporary overdraft, and suspension of loan payments.

A spokesperson for the bank, Simon Power, said customers affected by the fires should call or visit any of the Nelson branches.

Map: *Check this map for basic information, but do not rely on it for accuracy if you are in the area

Read more of RNZ's coverage of the Nelson fires:

Recap: Day three Nelson fire: Firefighters in race against wind Nelson fire: Government confirms support Nelson fire: Water shortage, dry conditions worry farmers Nelson bush fire: PM to assess damage as blaze remains 'out of control' Residents in Redwood Valley worry about blaze: 'It's another class altogether' Current fire danger levels 'at highest in nearly 20 years'

Fire scientist Grant Pearce, from Scion Rural Fire Research Group, said the Nelson region had a history of significant forest fires.

"The 1981 Hira fire occurred at a similar time of year (5 February), and is closest in size to the current event."

The region also experiences 9-10 days per year on average of very high and extreme forest fire danger, Mr Pearce said.

"However, in a bad fire season as many as 16-17 days of very high and extreme fire danger may occur. This year alone, Nelson has seen seven days of very high, and eight days of extreme forest fire danger, since the beginning of January, with the recent heatwave being a major contributor to this.

"Fire managers have reported that current fire danger levels are the highest they've seen in almost 20 years and NIWA's soil moisture maps are showing significant soil moisture deficits across the region."

He said that Nelson, as well as other parts of the country, were likely to see more of these types of wildfire events in future with climate change becoming more prominent.

"Modelling of potential future changes in fire danger indicates that the number of severe fire weather days is likely to increase in many parts of the country.

"This includes the Nelson region, where the number of days of very high and extreme forest fire danger could increase to more like 12-13 days per year on average, and maybe 20-25 days in the worst years, with climate change."

Essential information for Nelson-Tasman residents:

Stay up date with the lastest information from Nelson Tasman Civil Defence on their social page. Civil defence emergency declared 8am Wednesday by Nelson, Tasman mayors More than 200 properties have been evacuated overall, affecting about 400 residents. One home has been lost and several others damaged by the fire's intense heat. Rabbit Island fire is out and an investigation into the cause is underway If people evacuate and leave their homes it is asked they register with the Civil Defence Centre at St Johns Church, Edwards St in Wakefield or ring Civil Defence 03 5437290 to register they have moved and are safe. This is important to ensure everyone is accounted for and safe. Civil Defence Centre at St John's Church, Wakefield will close from 8pm today and reopen at 8am tomorrow unless there is a change to the current situation Road closures / cordons: Pigeon Valley Road at fire station to the last driveway before seal n Dovedale (approx. 381 Dovedale Road), Moutere Highway from Redwood Rd to Waimea West Road intersection, Eves Valley Road, Teapot Road, Golden Hills Road at Moutere Highway intersection, Golden Hills Road at Challies Road intersection, Intersection of Redwood Valley Road and Redwood Valley Lane, Green Acres Road. Feel in danger? People who feel in danger should call 111. If you or your family and friends in the affected areas need assistance, contact Nelson Tasman Civil Defence.

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