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Fire contained but peat could continue to burn

1 December 2007

Chathams fire contained but peat could continue to burn

The fire burning in a protected peat swamp on the Chathams Island has been brought under control, with fire crews continuing to dampen hot spots over a 250 ha control zone.

But deep burning peat fires could continue to burn for some months, and may flare up again in hot, windy conditions, Department of Conservation Chathams Area manager Ken Hunt said.

Fire crews have been working around the clock to fight the blaze since it was reported on Thursday afternoon.

By early this morning they had contained the fire to a 250 ha control zone in the 422.9 ha Wharekauri (Greenswamp) Conservation Area in the northern Chathams Island, with the help of a helicopter and monsoon bucket.

Mr Hunt said Chathams DOC staff, the Chatham Islands Fire Brigade and volunteers worked tirelessly throughout yesterday to contain the fire and, as the day progressed, to begin to reduce the intensity.

“The use of tractors and a rotary flailer were very effective in creating fire breaks.”

He said a Helipro BK117 twin engine helicopter which flew in from Palmerston North last evening with a monsoon bucket spent a productive two hours last night with the two Wellington ground crews.

“They were very successful in suppressing the more active burning front.”

At 5 am today a local fire crew took over from the Wellington crew. The helicopter is continuing to dampen down smouldering sites and water known underground fires with the monsoon bucket. Water is being taken from Lake Rotokawau which is now the only water source. This effort will continue during the day.

More DOC fire personnel, 4000 litres of fuel and an infrared camera, will arrive around 4pm today (Chathams time) on a charter flight from Wellington. The DOC staff include two logistics staff and four peat fire experts from Northland, who will deploy the camera tomorrow to check for and dampen down hotspots.

Mr Hunt said he was confident at this stage that the fire could be contained within the control zone, unless there is a dramatic change in weather conditions (ie strong winds and hot, dry weather).

“The fire is smouldering with small flare-ups with wind gusts but we should be able to dampen these down with the use of the helicopter.”

An investigation will be carried out into the cause of the fire.

Mr Hunt has acknowledged the efforts of DOC staff and the locals who have helped out with tractors, transport, food and manpower.

“I’m blown away by the many offers of help and the fantastic food that's been provided by the locals. And the firefighters have worked superbly, showing great discipline and dedication. Although tired on their break, they continue to ring in wanting to be involved.

“The co-operation between DOC and the Chatham Islands Council and Chatham Islands Civil Defence has been excellent. They have been briefed on the fire and have inspected the site and have made resources available as we’ve needed them. The Civil Defence director stood in as incident controller last night to relieve DOC staff. We are very appreciative of this support.”

The Wharekauri (Greenswamp) Conservation Area is one of New Zealand’s best examples of peat swamp, comprising several species of plants that are unique to the Chathams including Chatham Island bamboo rush Sporodanthus traversii, Chatham Island swamp aster Olearia semidentata, and the endemic turpentine tree Dracophyllum scoparium.

DOC ecologist John Sawyer said there is a risk of exotic weeds colonising the area after the fire, which if it burned intensely, could destroy the native seed bank, leading to problems with future regeneration of the native endemic plants.


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