Crews had one fewer fire to extinguish in Central Otago last weekend thanks to some quick-thinking members of the public.

A Fire and Emergency New Zealand spokesman said he understood passing motorists used a nearby K-line irrigator to extinguish the roadside fire, which had taken hold on a section of State Highway 8 at Fruitlands on Sunday afternoon.

Just moments later another fire had ignited further along the same stretch of road.
Both events prompted calls to 111, which were made by passing motorists.

When crews from Alexandra and Dunstan arrived at the first fire, it was already out, but they still had to extinguish the second fire, which had taken hold on both sides of the road.

Traffic was stopped in both directions while crews battled the flames.

Fenz Otago deputy principal rural fire officer for Central Bobby Lamont said, given the circumstances, members of the public did all the right things by reaching for the K-line irrigator when it was safe to do so and calling 111 as soon as they saw smoke.

‘‘They did really well.’’

Parts of the highway have ‘‘patchy’’ cellphone reception so it was lucky they were able to make the call to 111, he said.

As a result, five crews attended the scene — two from Alexandra and three from Dunstan.

Fenz had just days earlier warned the public of how easily a fire could ignite in the current dry conditions.


Hot, hot, hot . . . A Niwa map shows just how dry the country is. IMAGE: NIWA

On Sunday motorists watched from their vehicles as that warning became a reality.
Mr Lamont said he was not sure what started the fires.

A suggestion that a vehicle could have flicked a stone causing a spark was just speculation.
‘‘We can’t really say for sure.’’

Last week Fenz issued a warning for residents and visitors to Central Otago as the district entered a prohibited fire season.

A total fire ban is also in force. The ban prohibits activities including road­side mowing, grinding, welding and the use of chainsaws, fireworks and explosives.

Mr Lamont advised people to adhere to those rules as fire danger continued to increase.

‘‘Conditions are such that something as small as a spark could start a fire. Sparks can originate from a mower or chainsaw hitting unseen rocks or something more obvious such as [a] spark from grinding or welding.’’

Although it was not unusual for Central Otago to be hot and dry, recent temperatures combined with low humidity and persistent winds had exacerbated conditions this season.

‘‘We are getting drier and drier. The forecast isn’t for a significant amount of rain any time soon,’’ he said.

‘‘Things are going to get drier before it gets any better.’’

Niwa meteorologist Maria Augutis said rainfall for January had been ‘‘below to well below normal’’ across Otago and Central Lakes.

Wanaka had recorded 28mm of rainfall, just half of what it would usually get for the whole of January.

Alexandra had had 6.6mm, which was only 14% of what would normally be received for the month.

The remainder of this week was expected to be much the same as other recent weeks — windy and warm, ‘‘which will add to the drying trend’’.

Light relief was possibly in store for parts of New Zealand soon as some fronts move up the country, she said.

‘‘But most of the rain will stay west of the alps, while Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago may only get a few showers . . . but there might be a better chance for more significant rainfall next week.’’

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