Fire crews creating 1.2km containment line for Lee Valley fire

A roadblock at the Lee Valley fire on 8 February, 2024.

The scene of the fire in the Lee Valley on Thursday.
Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

It is hoped a forestry fire in Tasman’s Lee Valley will be contained by the end of the day, with evacuated residents able to return home.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) incident controller Steve Trigg said around 40 firefighters were using hand tools to create a two-metre containment line around the 1.2 kilometre perimeter of the forest fire, which had been burning for almost two days.

Fire and Emergency incident controller Steve Trigg

FENZ incident controller Steve Trigg says locals are concerned and the fire has brought back memories of the 2019 Pigeon Valley wildfire, which took a month to bring under control.
Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

“Our amazing crews and forestry partner crews are putting that containment line in all by hand, so they are under the trees raking, scraping and if there are trees that need to be dropped they will.”

The fire broke out mid-afternoon on 7 January, sparked by a grass fire on the roadside and had since spread to around nine hectares in size.

Nelson Pine Forests executive director Steve Chandler said he understood a vehicle had sparked three grass fires on the roadside; two of the fires were extinguished by local volunteer fire crews, but the third spread upwards into nearby maturing pine forest on steep terrain.

An investigation into the cause of the fires is underway.

“It seems to have been a vehicle that might have had a loose chain on it or maybe a bearing went – the exact cause is still to be determined but from what we understand it is something that happened because of some problem with a vehicle.”

Chandler said the forestry company had met with FENZ staff last week to discuss its plans for dealing with wildfires.

“Everything swung into action very quickly and within not too long there were seven helicopters on site, which was really good to see.”

It is almost five years to the day since the Pigeon Valley fire – accidentally sparked by an agricultural contractor working in a dry, stony paddock – tore across more than 2000 hectares of forestry in Tasman. It took firefighters a month to bring the wildfire under control.

Trigg said the Lee Valley fire was not very far from where the Pigeon Valley fire started.

“People are concerned, it has brought back memories … so we are very mindful of that and we have thrown a lot of resources at it.”

Last year, Nelson residents voiced concerns about the heightened wildfire risk across the region leading into what was forecast, to be a hot, dry, El Niño summer.

Trigg said he was confident the containment line around the fire perimeter would be complete by the end of the day. A control line of 20 metres was also being established around the perimeter by firefighters and forestry crews.

Helicopters were still dousing the area on Friday morning but had stopped before midday, to remain on standby if needed. Trigg said once it was safe to do so, firefighters would go into the fire ground, looking for hotspots and to begin the mop up.

He said the ongoing dry conditions in the Tasman District were “massively concerning” for firefighters.

“We’ve had three plus years of very wet summers so our concern is people are getting a little bit complacent out there as to how they should behave when it comes to dealing with wildfires.

“Mowing lawns, doing anything that may create sparks, that is our biggest concern. We’ve got a lot of fuel because of the conditions in the last few years.”

Once the containment line was complete, evacuated residents would be given the go-ahead to return to their homes, with the road open for residents only, with restricted speed limits in place.


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