Train sparks series of fires

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Investigations are under way into a series of 21 fires along a 12km stretch of railway track from Alma to Herbert, which may have been caused by sparks from a steam locomotive which visited Oamaru on Saturday.

At the height of the fire, 16 appliances and three helicopters using monsoon buckets fought to save farmland, houses and valuable feed stocks.

Dunedin Railways operations manager Grant Craig said all possible precautions to prevent such an event were taken with the 69-year-old locomotive, which was leased from Mainline Steam for the trip.

“We worked very closely with the rural fire people and as late as Friday afternoon looked at using a diesel locomotive instead of the “Jessica,” he said.

“As part of the precautions, we hooked diesel engines up to the train to help the steam engine up the steeper pieces of the track and we also had a 60,000-litre water tanker.”

According to Mr Craig, the journey from Dunedin to Oamaru for the 415 passengers went “without a hitch.”

“The extra diesel power helped the steam engine up the steeper part of the track from Shag Point/Merton to Herbert and again on the return trip in the steeper areas like Oamaru to Waiareka.

“We had very experienced people up front and they were happy with the performance of the engine.

“The incident is very regrettable and investigations are under way.”

Chief executive of Dunedin Railways Murray Bond said his company would be working closely with insurers and those directly affected by the fire.

“We want trips to be happy events and to have an incident such as this is very disappointing,” he said.

“The ‘Jessica’ is very well maintained and the people are very experienced.”

Mr Bond said he also wanted to hear from landowners and those directly affected by the fires.

“I have had one email but if anyone was directly affected from the fires, I would like to hear from them,” he said.

The train was stopped in Herbert and not allowed to carry on due to the fire risk.

Otago Rural Fire Authority rural fire officer Eric Spittal said it was probably ash which started the fires.

“The steam train, which was fine on the way up, began to leak ash and this led to all of the fires being started along the railway track.

“We had a large number of crews spread out along the 12km of track trying the best to put the fires out.”

Fire crews battled the fires for around 10 hours, with the last crew leaving about 1am yesterday.

However, the fires were not entirely put out, with some having to return yesterday morning to continue fighting the fires.

“It was a fantastic effort by all involved; we did splendidly well and I’m incredibly pleased that the fires didn’t got spread and become a lot more dangerous.”

State Highway 1 was closed for around an hour on Saturday after the fire caused thick black smoke to cover the road just south of the bridge in Maheno, making it too hard to see.

Traffic was diverted for a short time.

Mr Spittal said the main concern was properties and crops near the railway lines getting caught in the fires.

“We tried to make sure there were no houses or crops caught in the damage and if there was, we put it out as quickly as possible, and thankfully there was only very minor damage.”

Mr Spittal said a lack of wind also helped in being able to contain the fires.

“We are very fortunate that there’s been minimal winds this summer and that helped with the fires on Saturday.”

By Jacquie Webby and Brayden Lindsay

PHOTO: CAROL EDWARDS – “Jessica” JA1240 in Oamaru on Saturday before it left for Dunedin. It is believed to have caused a series of blazes between Alma and Maheno.