Warning as dry, windy conditions fuel rural fires

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Dry and windy conditions have been a large factor in two rural fires that broke out in North Otago yesterday.

Two fires ignited scrub yesterday morning – one in Palmerston and the other in Hampden – after sparks came off two machines and lit dry grass where KiwiRail contractors were grinding tracks.

The fire in Hampden started on Bluff Hill Rd at 11.49am and took over an hour to extinguish.

Waitaki District Council emergency services manager Chris Raine said part of the hill was alight and the fire went for about 500m along the railway tracks causing damage to scrub.

Palmerston deputy chief fire officer Kelvin Clearwater said there was not a great deal of damage caused by the Palmerston fire.

The fire damaged the base of some gum trees and some grass along the sides of the tracks, but mainly there was a lot of smoke, he said.

The dry conditions would probably have helped the fire ignite, Mr Clearwater said.

“I think if [contractors are] doing anything with flames they need to make sure they have a spotter to keep an eye on things.”

It took 12 fire fighters half an hour to extinguish the approximately 40m2 fire which started on Ronaldsay St, Palmerston at 9.53am, he said.

A KiwiRail spokesperson said rail grinders generate sparks as they proceed along tracks but fire risks were carefully managed.

“The rail grinder itself carries 24,000 litres of water which it sprays out in advance and after every pass.

“The water supply is never allowed to drop below 25 per cent capacity.

“In addition, the grinder is followed by two high-rail trucks, each carrying 1500 litres of water.”

Local fire authorities were always contacted prior to operations and provided with a full briefing including the proposed schedule and plan of the work, the KiwiRail spokesperson said.

“A daily risk review is carried out by the grinding contractor at each site and if circumstances change during the day this is reviewed.”

Mr Raine said it had been especially dry over the last few weeks causing vegetation to dry out and the weather was humid and windy, he said.

“People should use common sense.”

“Don’t light any fires if it is windy, embers can travel in the wind.”

By RUBY HARFIELD

PHOTO: SAMANTHA MCPHERSON