Paper Presented by Bob McNeil, Central Otago District Council, at the 1999 FRFANZ Conference

 

ALEXANDRA FIRE INCIDENTS

 

28 FEBRUARY 1999

 

THE FOUR FIRES

 

On Sunday 28th February, four fires occurred within a sixteen‑kilometre radius of Alexandra:

 

  1. The first at 1307 was located at the junction of Young Lane and Springvale Road approximately 7 km NW of Alexandra. See Figure 1.
  2. The second at 1352 was a tree and grass fire in Gilligans Gully approximately 2 km NNE of the Alexandra Post Office, but located within the Xexandra Urban Fire Area. See Figure 1.
  3. The third fire at 1512 started in the Waikerikeri Valley approximately 11.5 km NNW, and is referred to as the “Springvale Fire" in this document. See Figure 1.
  4. The fourth and final fire at 1531 was ignited adjacent to the State Highway 8 approximately 16 km SSW of Alexandra, on State Highway 8 between the Gorge Creek Bridge, and the top of Reid's Hill. This fire is referred to as the "Fruitlands Fire” in the rest of this document.

 

Figure 1 shows the location of the first three fires in relation to Alexandra and Clyde. For the third fire, the map indicates where it actually started as the area covers a large portion of this map. The fourth fire being South of Alexandra is not shown.

 

WEATHER

 

The weather on the 28th February was a major factor in these fires being a moderate to strong Northwesterly with quite high gusts. This wind was a major factor in the fires as three of the above fires were probably caused by trees or tree branches being blown into power lines causing them to part and set adjacent ground on fire.

 

A special weather bulletin issued at 0902 hours 28th February included.

A large deep depression was passing about 800 km South of Stewart Island bringing a very strong Northwest flow over Southern New Zealand. A cold front was expected to reach Foveaux Strait about midday and lay from about Haast to Timaru at midnight on the 28th. In the wake of this front winds were forecast to turn west to southwest and pick up for a time on the south Otago coast, but ease slowly in most other places.

 

A strong wind warning was issued for Southland, Inland Fiordland, South Otago Coast, some inland areas of Otago and Canterbury also hilltops on Banks Peninsular. The forecast for some inland areas of Otago were for northwest winds expected to strengthen in the morning to 60 km/h with gusts reaching 110 km/h at times between 11 am and midnight.

 

Forecast for Alexandra Area issued 1858 on 28th February 1999 was:

Dry with variable high cloud. Northwesterly, 60 km/h gusting 110 kph at times in exposed places, Winds easing from about 2100 hours and changing southwest. Sorry no rain expected. Monday: Morning cloud clearing and becoming fine, with cold south westerlies 35 km/h easing.

 

The Fire Weather Report issued 1200 NZS7 28th February 1999 included.

 

LOCATION

TEMP

RELATIVE

HUMIDITY

WIND

DIRECTION

WIND

SPEED

FWI

GRASS

DANGER

LAUDER

20.7

26

323

45

102

Extreme

CLYDE

23.0

27

305

7

31

V High

Mt BENGER

13.4

45

74

34

68

Extreme

 

The Fire Weather Report issued 1200 NZST Ist March included.

 

LOCATION

TEMP

RELATIVE

HUMIDITY

WIND

DIRECTION

WIND

SPEED

FWI

GRASS

DANGER

LAUDER

15.2

24

248

32

71

Extreme

CLYDE

16.1

37

271

3

26

High

Mt BENGER

5.0

85

36

63

3

Moderate

 

NOTE.. An FWI of 31+ is considered extreme.

 

1. YOUNG LANE

 

Brief Overview

 

The Young Lane fire was located at the intersection of Young Lane and Springvale Road. The probable cause was a set of power lines that cross Springvale Road at the junction had parted and set the grass on fire. This had spread into adjacent trees. The fire spread across Springvale Road and was moving in an easterly direction along the north side of Springvale Road in grass but also amongst tall poplar trees that border the road at this location. As can be seen from the previous weather conditions, there were strong Norwest winds at the time causing considerable concern had these winds not been present; this fire may have been treated as relatively minor. The total area of the fire was estimated to be less than one hectare with the actual burn area being considerably less than this.

 

Firecom Logs

 

Details from Firecom Logs and from details of those attending were as follows:

 

Time    Details

 

1308           Clyde 4141 was dispatched to a roadside grass fire in Young Lane near Springvale Road.

1316    Clyde 411 was K66 and subsequently requested Police and Central Electric staff to attend.

1316    Mr Owen Burgess DPRFO attended the fire.

1329    The DPRFO requested that Alexandra 3910 (Rural Fire Appliance) be dispatched.

1332    Alexandra dispatched Alex 391.

1348    Alex 391 K2 at incident.

1342    The requested Alex 3910 reported K1, proceeding to incident.

1348    Alex 3910 reported K2 at incident.

1355    Alex 391 returned to Alexandra and was back inside their normal turnout area (K4).

1359    Alexandra 3910 reported K4.

1407    Clyde 411 sent a stop message (K48) and K4 for this callout.

 

2. GILLIGANS GULLY

 

Brief Overview

 

At 1352, Firecom received a call reporting a fire at 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road. A Willow tree trunk or large branch had split some three metres above the ground with a large part failing over and blocking the road breaking power lines as it fell. The broken power lines were the most likely cause of a grass fire that rapidly spread up the adjacent hill, surrounding the residence owned by G H & M D Coppins. Alexandra 392 and 3926 were initially dispatched to the call and were able to protect the above property from the road where the fallen tree had stopped them. Alexandra 391 and Alexandra 3910 were K1 at 1359. (Alexandra 391 had refill with water after being at the Young Lane fire). Alexandra 399 was dispatched at 1428 arriving at 1428. Clyde 411 was also dispatched and was K2 at 1435.

 

From the ignition point the fire had spread up the hill and around the Coppin residence. It then continued up to the top and along the ridge heading in an Easterly and northeasterly direction towards Manuherikia Road, where a number of properties are located. The fire area contained a large number of mature pine trees. At 1401 a request was made for a Rural Fire Officer to attend, so the DPRO who had just left the previous fire, immediately made his way to this one. Although the location had a rural appearance, it was later established that this fire was actually in the Alexandra Urban Area, and not a rural fire. Due to the  severe conditions and the amount of property at risk, at 1428 the DPRFO initiated a call to the manager of Helicopters Otago to put helicopters on standby. He also notified the PRFO who attended soon after.

 

Mr G. Gale the manager of Helicopters Otago was actually in Queenstown when he was notified of the DPRO's call, so after speaking to Mr Burgess at 1438, then called on both Glacier & Southern Lakes Helicopters Ltd, and The Helicopter Line Ltd, advising them of the situation, and to be on standby for a possible call. At 1458 it was reported to Firecom that fire brigade resources were being shifted to Manuherikia Road to protect the four properties in this area. They had already been reinforced with Clyde 411 at 1435. The fire was estimated to now be covering an area of approximately 50 acres.

 

In addition to resources at the fire a number of covering moves were made. They were:

 

*  Cromwell 421 was dispatched to Alexandra Station.

*  Wanaka 851 was dispatched to Cromwell Station.

*  Queenstown 761 was dispatched to Cromwell Station.

 

From the Firecom logs it is not easy to determine when this fire was actually out as the file was closed at 2246 on the 9 March 1999. This is probably because fire appliances were deployed, or went direct from this fire to the Springvale fire. it is also interesting to note that during the first Infra Red Camera survey, a hot spot was located behind, but relatively close to one of the properties on Manuherikia Road. This was eventually dug out and damped down. The Alexandra Rural Fire Appliance 3910 was the last to leave this incident (apart from dampening the hot spot mentioned above) as they were using the Wajax Pump to damp down hot spots on the face of the hill overlooking Manuherikia Road. It is estimated that Alex 3910 left at approximately 1830, but there is conflicting information from even those manning the appliance. This is understandable, as many of this crew like others worked for most of the night.

 

Gilligans Gully Fire Log

 

Details from Firecom Logs and from details of those attending were as follows:

 

1352    Firecom had received and confirmed a report of a fire at 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road   where a tree (branch) had fallen over power lines setting fire to grass, and that the fire was heading towards houses.

1356    Alexandra 392 was dispatched K1 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road.

1358    Alexandra 3926 K1 to 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road.

13 59   Alexandra 392 K66 and Alexandra 3926 K2

             Alexandra 392 K1 1 E (Requested Central Electric Ltd staff to attend)

             Alexandra 391 responded and was K1. It was still returning from the Young Lane fire.

             Alexandra 3910 responded and was K1, also returning from the Young Lane fire.

1401    Alexandra 391 requested the PRFO to attend the callout.

1403    At the informative message from Alexandra 392 was that there was a large grass fire

             threatening a house, with power lines down over the road, and a chain saw in use to clear the road.

1406    Alexandra 3910 K2 at 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road.

             The DPRFO arrived as requested.

1421    Alexandra 391 K2

1422    RFM Alan Jackson notified of the incident.

1422    Alexandra 399 K1 to 52 (Rapid) Gilligans Gully Road

1425    Clyde 411 KI proceeding to the incident.

1428    Alexandra 399 K2

1435    Clyde 411 K2

1438    Cromwell 421 dispatched to Alexandra Station (Covering Move).

1439    Wanaka 851 dispatched to Cromwell Station (Covering Move).

1447    Queenstown 761 dispatched to Cromwell Station (Covering Move).

1513    Alexandra 392 K4

1514    Clyde 411 K4

1515    Alexandra 391 K4

1516    Alexandra 399 K4

 

As stated above there is no record of when the last fire appliance (Alexandra Rural 3910) left this fire but is estimated to be approximately 1830.

 

3. SPRINGVALE FIRE (WAIKERIKERI VALLEY)

 

Brief Overview

 

At 1512 a call was received by Firecom reporting a grass fire in the Waikerikeri Valley. Several calls followed and as the fire progressed into other areas many further calls were received. Cromwell 422 and Alexandra 392 were the first appliances to be dispatched. On hearing the call at 1512, the PRFO Mr R. McNeil left the Gilligans Gully fire and proceeded to Waikeriked Valley soon after arriving there ahead of any fire appliances.

He found some local people attempting to beat out flames on the roadside with sacks. Someone called and said there was a wire down at the same time that Mr McNeil noticed a power pole on fire.

 

He dialed 111 and requested Central Electric Ltd to cut the power the Waikerikeri Valley. He also told the local people stay clear of the wires, but to continue to try and prevent the fire from spreading back over to the West Side of the road, and for safely, to keep within sight of each other. During this time the fire with the assistance of strong Norwest winds spread rapidly across Waikerikeri Valley flats, through willow trees then almost like a mini explosion ignite grasses going up the hill and onto the plateau above.

 

The fire then proceeded to spread in a fan shape, the left flank front passing south of the McArthur homestead and moving to the top of Golden Road. The right flank moved quickly towards rural residential areas in Brandy Gully, Springvale/Letts Gully and ultimately Alexandra. In the centre of the fan the property belonging to Browns, located off McArthur Road. The fire subsequently destroyed their house, shed and a vehicle.

 

Two fire appliances arrived at Waikerikeri Valley, Cromwell 421 reporting K66 at 1535. Alexandra 392 reported K1 to incident at 1514, and at 1528 before actually reaching the fire called for additional support (P3). Its K2 is not recorded. These appliances then proceeded to contain the fire as much as possible but were soon called away as the fire head was then putting property at risk in the Brandy Gully/Springvale Road area.

 

One of the appliances went to McArthur Road to try and fight the fire there, but had to retreat, as the fire head was moving rapidly towards that area. It is also noted that spectators were actually driving up this road really putting themselves and any rescue attempt in jeopardy. A further concern is the explosives magazines located off McArthur Road. The magazines were built to withstand a very high temperature, and the road was closed to prevent any further risk to life. Farmers had also proceeded to cut firebreaks from the top of this road to above Waikerikeri Valley to prevent the left flank upwind spread.

 

It is interesting to note that an informative message was received at 1609 that the 'Fire has jumped main road and heading for Letts Gully Area.' This indicates the fire travelled between 5 and 5.75 kilometres from the starting point in approximately an hour. In this time and in this flank  of the fire there were approximately 20 residential properties at risk, one mentioned above was subsequently destroyed.

 

At 1537 the DPRFO sent out a request for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The requests were phoned to Mr Graeme Gale of Helicopters Otago Ltd, and Mr Simon Spencer Bower of Wanaka Helicopters Ltd. They then arranged aircraft from Queenstown, Wanaka, Te Anau, Gore, Dunedin, Oamaru, Twizel, and a third Cresco from Christchurch. As stated above, Mr Gale who was in the Queenstown area had earlier asked two Queenstown operators to be on standby during the Gilligans Gully incident. This procedure of arranging aircraft rather than the DPRFO calling individuals, appeared to work very well, especially under the extreme conditions that prevailed at these initial stages of the fire.

 

While this was happening the fourth fire (Fruitlands) of the day in the area, that of Gorge Creek/Reids Hill area had been called in at 1532. More detail of this follows later. After an aerial survey of both fires it was decided that due to the amount of life and property at risk in the ‘Springvale Fire' as compared to the ‘Fruitlands Fire' that most effort initially would be centered on the former. Fire appliances were in the Fruitlands area to ensure property was not put at risk, but at that time this fire was contained to vegetation between the main highway and Lake Roxburgh.

 

Firecom went through the task of getting the maximum resources to the two fires. Actual appliances involved in the two fires were:

 

                                      Alexandra 391                       Millers Flat 437

                                      Alexandra 392                       Lawrence 581

                                      Alexandra 399                       Tapanui 517

                                    Alexandra 3910                       Waitahuna 591

                                              Clyde 411                       Milton 531

                                         Omakau 441                       Southern 1

                                        Cromwell 421                       Southern 2

                                        Cromwell 422                       Southern 3

                                             Tarras 861                       NZ Army 9111

                                  Queenstown 761                       NZ Army 9160

                                         Frankton 771                       NZ Army 9161

                                         Dunedin 212                       NZ Army 9164

                                       Roxburah 451

 

Note: There may have only been two appliances from Invercargill, but they also sent 12 men in two vans with a pump.

 

In addition to the above NZFS support vehicles were used as well as rural fire teams and trailers These included:

 

                                    Alexandra 3926                       Becks Rural Fire Teams 1 & 2

                                     Roxburgh 4526                       Millers Flat Rural Fire Teams

                       DOC Rural Fire Teams                       Arrowtown 78? (Fire Trailer)

                             Luggate Fire Trailer

 

Fire Control:

 

A Fire Control was set up in the Alexandra Fire Station and did an admirable job. Because much of this function is normally done away from the station, the brigade was not really prepared for this task in respect to the size of the fire. They adopted the method of recording on a separate sheet of paper, each appliance, independent fire party, and tankers with the names of crew members, time and task location. Each time the appliance, tanker or fire crew was moved or reassigned, it was recorded on it's own sheet of paper. Unfortunately, they did not record times, which has made the problems of sorting out what happened quite difficult, but at the time they were only interested in putting the fire out and personnel safety.

 

In the absence of anything better this system worked well and with refinements will be very workable for any future incident. Since the fire, members of the Alexandra brigade have designed a formal sheet to record these details.

 

Aircraft Arrival & Deployment:

 

Helicopters began arriving at Alexandra between 1630 and 1700 the first arriving from Te Anau. At that time because the magnitude and direction of the fire was very evident, they were initially left to their own initiative for fire fighting. One helicopter was used by both NZ Fire Service (CFO) for a quick recce of the fire, the NZ Police, to confirm evacuation and property status, but mainy by Rural Fire as an Aerial Coordinator and to some degree as an Air Operations Boss. Most of the time, they were keeping the Fire Control at the Alexandra Fire Station informed via cellphone of properties that were at high risk. This allowed the CFO and his officers to better coordinate the fire appliances and fire teams.

 

By nightfall, ten helicopters had been involved in spotting or fire fighting although the last for a minimal period as it had arrived just prior to nightfall.

 

Helicopters used Sunday 28th :

 

TYPE                              REG      OPERATOR                                                                 BASE

Squirrel AS350B           HMY      South West Helicopters                                               Te Anau

Hughes 369E                HJS       Wanaka Aviation                                                           Wanaka

Squirrel AS355‑1          HMIL     Helicopter Line                                                              Queenstown

Squirrel AS 350B          HNU      Glacier & Southern Lakes Helicopters                       Queenstown

Hughes 369D                HWH     Central South Island Helicopters                                 Oamaru

Hughes3169D               HOT      Wanaka Aviation                                                           Wanaka

Squirrel AS3150152    HRM      Southern Lakes Helicopters                                        Te Anau

Hughes 1‑69D               HUX      Southern Lakes Helicopters                                        Te Anau

Kawasaki BK 117         HLU       Helicopters Otago 1 St Johns                                     Dunedin

Bell Jetranger 6206B   HWF     Peter Garden Helicopters Ltd                                     Riversdale

Bell Jetranger B206B   HSL       Peter Garden Helicopter's Ltd                                     Riversdaie

Bell Jetranger B206B   HTO      Geoff Kitto Helicopters                                                 Balclutha         

 

Note: HTO was used by Manager, Rural Fire Dunedin to appraise the situation only. It never actually landed at Alexandra.

 

Subsequent helicopters used.

 

TYPE                           REG   OPERATOR                                                                          BASE

Squirrel AS 350B       HSH    Helicopter Line                                                             Queenstown

Squirrel AS 355‑1      HMIL   Helicopter Line                                                             Queenstown

Squirrel AS350S2      IWJ      Glacier & Southern Lakes Helicopters                      Queenstown

Schweizer 269C         HDP    Wyndon Aviation/Peter Paterson                                   Omarama

Robinson R22                         Russell Emmerson                                                                  Lindis

 

Note: The latter two helicopters were brought in by local farmers, but the Schweizer 269C was used by the Air Boss for a recce during Monday afternoon.

 

Two fixed wing Cresco turboprop topdressing aircraft arrived at approximately 1730. These aircraft are capable of carrying and dumping 2000 litres of water per load. On arrival, they were instructed by the DPRFO to stay clear of the helicopter operations, keep in radio contact with them and concentrate on the southerly flank of the fire to help prevent it from spreading into the Letts Gully area. Although water tankers were initially deployed to the aerodrome to load them, it was found that by pumping water direct from a potable dam in the water race running along the NE side of the main grass runway, they could load the aircraft in just under 2 minutes. This was using two filling hoses.

 

A third Cresco coming from Christchurch got as far as Omarama on Sunday night and arrived at Alexandra first thing on Monday morning:

 

Fixed Wing Aircraft Details:

 

TYPE                            REG      OPERATOR                                          EASE

Cresco                          EE L      Oamaru Air Spread                               Twizel

Cresco                          PKB       Oamaru Air Spread                               Duriedin/0amaru

Cresco                          WAT      Wyndon Aviation                                    Weedons/Christchurch

 

Due to the large number of dwellings at risk it was decided to declare a Civil Emergency. This was done at 1800 hours Sunday 28th February and was held in place for eighteen hours or midday on 1st March. This is mention in more detail later in the document.

 

The Springvale Fire continued to spread across Golden Road and forming a large finger on the left flank that burned in an easterly direction for approximately 2 km. This finger had actually nearly surrounded the old Golden Homestead, moving into willow trees running parallel to and on the East Side of Golden Road. It continued towards Springvale Road before climbing out of that valley crossing several low ridges before either being extinguished or literally blown out in an area of low fuel.

 

Due to the large number of willow trees below the old Golden Homestead, this area was of considerable concern and took several days to completely quell. In fact this and similar areas in Waikerikeri Valley were the main reason for not making an early declaration of the fire being out. The willow stumps were burning deep into the ground, and the only successful way to extinguish them in the short term was to dig them out with heavy earth moving equipment and thoroughly soak the burning roots. The other flank after crossing Springvale Road, was contained to within a hundred metres of the road until it was approximately 500 metres east of the Letts Gully Road Intersection. This flank of the fire then moved in a southeasterly direction almost in a straight line towards the Manuherikia Galloway Road junction.

 

O'Neill Lane running off Rockview Road is a relatively recent rural development area with several 'Lifestyle blocks' located along it. It is intersected by Long Gully, which is heavy peaty type ground. The risk to property damage in this area was high as many of the properties are not yet developed and have dry grass quite close to residences. This was partially offset by the lack of established trees, which allowed the fire to travel through quickly. The heavier ground at the base of the gully did burn hotter and much longer and required a lot more effort to finally extinguish. In fact hot spots were found in parts of this gully for several days. Some implement sheds were lost in this area

 

As it neared Rockview Road, it was directed more easterly away from houses on the Rockview Road terrace, then following the south face of Long Gully to Manuherikia Road. It jumped Manuherikia Road and burnt the entire top of Bruces Hill and down to the tarseal on Galloway Road adjacent to the First Galloway Bridge.

 

There was a cellphone 111 call receiver by Firecom at 1840 hours reporting this latter part of the fire. As this point is approximately 10 kilometres from the ignition point and took around three and a half hours to reach there, the fire had travelled at least an average a little over 2.8 km per hour. In fact in was likely to have been faster than this if the initial speed is any indication. Probably by this time, the fire had reached the final boundaries in which it was contained. Fire crews were able to contain the fire on the western side of Galloway Road and the Manuherikia River, which in hindsight was a huge save. The general consensus of opinion is that had the fire crossed the Manuherikia River, then it would have been extremely hard to stop before the Manorburn/Crawford Hills areas.

 

The left flank apart from the finger mentioned above, followed down the southwestern side of Golden Road until crossing Springvale Road. It then followed roughly on the Southern edge of ‘Scrubby Gully’ until adjacent to the radio mast. From this point it turned to meet up with the main Chatto Creek Road near Long Gully.

 

The area covered by this fire has been calculated to be 2600 hectares with a perimeter of 31 kilometres.

 

The second dwelling to be destroyed was located on the edge of Scrubby Gully approximately 700 metres Southeast of the Golden & Springvale Road junction. This was the Cooper residence where their house and garage were totally destroyed. Within the confines of the fire there were eight other buildings destroyed many of which included farm implements, tractors, farmbikes, and a host of machinery. By nightfall this fire was essentially under control, but with an extreme risk of breaking out and continuing to spread. A large number of fire crews worked throughout the night to keep the fire within the existing perimeter, and control many flare‑ups that occurred.

 

The magnitude of these fires on the first day was evident to all those in the area, so it wasn't long before volunteers with water tankers starting ringing or arriving at the station. In addition to this, food and drink began arriving at the fire station in the late afternoon. The food and drink was very much appreciated by all of those concerned with the fires, but because the public did not know all of the locations that were being used as depots, the food was initially concentrated at the fire station and the airport. Places like the DOC base where the DOC Fire Teams were based missed out.

 

4. FRUITLANDS FIRE

 

Overview

 

At 1532 just twenty minutes after the fire in Waikerikeri Valley had been reported, a Gorge Creek farmer Mr Phillip Lucas rang 111 to report a grass fire on the East Side of road approximately midway between the Gorge Creek Bridge and the top of Reids Hill. There has been a reported sighting a cigarette butt being discarded from a vehicle, but this is as yet unsubstantiated except that the fire appeared to have started beside the road. Another possible cause may have been a piece of hot carbon emitted from a truck exhaust or similar.

 

Roxburgh 451 was dispatched along with Cromwell 422. Both of these appliances reported K1 at 1545 however, the Firecom Log at this time was being clogged by the high amount of R.T. traffic from the Springvale and other fires. Roxburgh 4526 and Millers Flat 437 were also dispatched although the latter was initially a covering move to Roxburgh. Because of the terrain at the fire, there was little that these appliances could do away from the road. The terrain that was burning were mainly dark faces, with a lot of tussock dry grass and stunted scrub, and in places very steep and inaccessible even to four wheel drive vehicles away from formed tracks.

 

As in the other fires in the area, this fire was being fanned by strong hot & dry Norwest winds. It spread down towards Lake Roxburgh, as well as going in both directions, both into wind towards Fruitlands and downwind where it crossed Gorge Creek and burned the faces overlooking the lake eventually reaching Shingle Creek. It did not cross to the South side of Shingle Creek. As stated previously, it was decided that due to the much lower risk of loss of life and property in this fire, most resources would remain concentrated on the Springvale Fire until it was felt they could be safely released to this fire. There were no properties at risk on the eastern side (below) the road on this fire. It was never envisioned that this fire could have crossed the lake.

 

A number of farmers, locals, and other volunteers formed a group at Reids Hill ready to assist in trying to control this fire, but their services were not really called upon. Had any of this group proceeded into the field adjacent to where they were assembled, the possibility of loss of life would have been quite high as the scrub covered slopes literally exploded when the first ignited on them. Some of the more experienced members of the group were aware of this possibility, and directed the party to slay on the main highway and try to prevent any spread across it.

 

At 1710 Roxburgh 451 reported that the fire had jumped Lake Roxburgh to the east shore, and started burning it's way up the Knobby Range. An eyewitness description is that the wind had dropped for a short time, when all of a sudden there was a huge gust. A ball of fire was seen to get blown across the lake and on hitting the far side, literally explode up the very steep face on that side. The witness described it as only seconds for the fire to reach the top of the terrace above the lake.

 

From here, the unchecked fire was free to advance initially around the south side of the Knobby Range. The left flank of the fire was quietly advancing into the strong Norwest winds while the right flank carried on down the lake and over ridges approximately towards McKenzies Beach.

 

As soon as practical, the first helicopter was released from the Springvale Fire and deployed to Fruitlands. By nightfall, at least four helicopters were working on this fire, but it may have been up to six. By early evening two homesteads and their associated buildings, those of McNeish's and Hamilton's located on the south side of the Knobby, were at extreme risk. It is a credit to the firecrews involved in the first twelve hours of this fire that they were able to save the above dwellings, as an implement shed close to the MeNeish residence was lost.

 

Late on Sunday night the right flank of the fire was spreading down the steep dark faces on the western side of Lake Roxburgh to Shingle Creek where it eventually stopped. The sloping terraces above these faces but below the main highway were largely unburnt. Another finger was spreading Slowly up Gorge Creek towards the highway bridge. This fire appeared to be burning quite fiercely late on Sunday Night and caused some concern should it cross the main highway and spread up the Old Man Range.

 

The left flank had got onto the top of Flattop Hill just across the main highway from the helipad. Once on top, it had burnt in a line running diagonally across this hill (almost east/west) and then gone back down to the take shore. The strong winds must have prevented it from spreading further towards Alexandra than this. Across the River, as stated, a very high and steep face rises from the lake to large terraces some 370 metres above. These terraces covering an area from about 1.5 km at it's widest to approximately 2.5 km in length. Although they contain a lot of cultivated land, the area has a lot of rock outcrops, tussock country shallow peaty gullies but also deep rocky gullies as well. At this time of the year, and after a relatively low rainfall season, the ground was extremely dry providing a lot of fire fuel.

 

The right flank then spread over the ridge that runs off the Knobby range, and down into the deep valley that runs to the west of the Knobby Range Road. From the bottom of this valley, it is a relatively short distance to the two houses. The two houses were put at risk in the early part of the evening but unfortunately the records do not actually indicate a time. A report was received at one stage of men trapped in Hamilton's woolshed requiring a helicopter for immediate evacuation, but this proved to be unfounded.

 

One appliance probably Clyde 411 dispatched to McNeish's property, on hearing that the house was under a very real threat, drove through burning material on the road to get there. Until then they had been damping down the roadside so that they could get in. Fire crews assisted by a change in the weather were able to contain the fire, mostly to 'the west side of the Knobby Range Road with only a couple of re!atively small fingers actually crossing the road. The biggest of these fingers was approximately opposite the Hamilton Homestead.

 

An aerial inspection around 2130 ‑2200 showed the main part of the fire to be the left flank. It was burning pretty well in a straight East West fire line and actually burning into wind. By approximately 2200 hours that line was almost opposite but slightly south of Gorge Creek. It was extremely hard to get accurate landmarks in the dark. During the night the fire eventually burnt over the top of the Knobby Range in doing so was largely being extinguished by a cooler southerly change during the night accompanied with a minimal amount of rain. The fire mostly stayed within the boundaries established by daylight on Monday 1st March, however a finger that extends in a northerly direction on the terraces above Lake Roxburgh was subject to a major flare‑up and moving the boundary in that direction. Another major flare‑up was also bordering unburnt fuel in the head of the gully that runs to the north from the Hamilton homestead.

 

This fire by the time it was under control had burnt an area of approximately 5600 hectares and a perimeter of 40 kilometres. This is more than twice times twice the size of the Springvale fire.

 

STRATEGY

 

It became evident on day two (Monday) of the fires that the field management of them could not be easily combined. It was decided to set up separate bases at Fruitlands and Springvale.

 

For the Fruitlands fire, the DOC Field Control caravan was taken to Mark Reid's property on Tuesday morning (2nd March 1999) and located in the paddock being used for a helipad. The lack of cellphone coverage at this location was the deciding factor to move the caravan to the top of Reid's Hill above the helipad site. This offered good communications to the fire ground and to the helipad as well as via cellphone back to the Incident Control Centre.

 

The DOC Mini Repeater had been set up the previous day to the north of the Fruitlands fire, but this was proving to be a bit of a problem in not giving coverage to all areas of the fire, so it was relocated to a high point within the fire ground. This gave good coverage for the operation, the only problem that the Incident Management Team could not access it.

 

Both Red Cross and Salvation Army catering caravans were set up on the ‘*Helipad' on Tuesday with the intention of cooking crew meals on sight. This proved to be impractical because of the amount of dust, so the Red Cross was relocated to the Springvale Base, and the Salvation Army continued to serve meals prepared in Alexandra. They served three meals per day for all the field crews. Breakfast and tea were at the caravan while most lunches were flown into the field. Most crews were within a few minutes flying time from Fruitlands Base.

 

On Monday, the Air Boss located at Alexandra Airport controlled aerial operations, and although fixed wing aircraft, were used on both fires on Monday, helicopter operations were confined to the Fruitlands Fire. As suggested at the coordination (Civil Defence) meeting on Sunday Night, Mark Reid had been approached for the use of his paddock for a helipad. Helicopters were working from here on Monday to reduce ferry time from Alexandra. Two of the operators put had refuelling facilities at Fruitlands.

 

The operation as set up on the Tuesday continued throughout the exercise. The Ground Operations Boss was based at the caravan with an assistant on the helipad. The Air Boss was also situated on the helipad, as by this time, the only air operations with the exception of Thermal Imaging, was being carried out at Fruitlands. Apart from the Smokechasers, fire fighting crews were airlifted into the field each morning, and airlifted out each night. The Smokechasers drove their vehicles into the area via the Knobby Range Road and were able to get access to the majority of the area. Only some of the steeper areas were out of reach of the Smoke Chasers. It was fortunate that there were a number of water dams within the fire area, which allowed the filling of monsoon buckets very close to any fire fighting action. These dams lasted throughout the operation.

 

For the first few days this fire, as Springvale, was extremely volatile. Flareups were common and areas within the perimeter of the fire actively burning under the service. These areas had had a lot of water put on them by helicopter monsoon buckets but were proving very difficult to extinguish. They were given a low priority in the early stages of the fire as they were well within the burnt area. As previously stated they were mostly in shallow peaty type gullies. Many of the hotspots were under what appeared to be green grass.

 

A number of flareups and hot spots that were adjacent to unburnt areas were given high priority. As typical with these fires, what looked cold in the morning would begin smoking in the afternoon once the daily temperature began to peak at around 1400 hours. It was crucial to have Smokechasers and teams in the field at this time.

 

Wednesday or day four saw the first use of the Infra Red Thermal Camera, and this was able to identify hot spots. They were marked with white electric fence standards for later attention by ground crews or in many cases, by helicopter monsoon bucket. Although this procedure proved to be very worth while, it was not totally reliable, as there were areas that appeared cold to the camera that were subject to flareups, particularly on the southeast flank. Due to the time involved, this detection was mainly confined to the outer edges of the fire.

 

Each day saw a lessening of the number of hotspots and flareups. There was a race to get these out as the weather forecast for later in the week was for gale force winds. These never eventuated. A 12 tonne tracked digger was brought in and was used to break up persistent areas to allow crews to extinguish areas burning below the surface. This digger was also joined by a rubber tyred digger. A portable dam and Wajax pump was also put into operation in the peaty gullies mentioned above. This type of operation was dependent on the areas being identified with the Thermovision Camera.

 

Monday 8th March 1999 or day nine saw a dramatic change in weather with cool wet southerlies moving in. Crews were lifted off the hill in the early afternoon, and the operation suspended on Tuesday 9"' after most equipment was retrieved from the field. It was a concern that one group of younger volunteers were not equipped for the cold change, and could have been a problem had they not been able to be flown out on Monday afternoon.

 

Personnel in the field each day were: (some errors in these as some were support staff or itinerant only)

Day                                          Field Crews          Support Staff

Monday 1st                             40                                                  ?

Tuesday 2nd                           47                                                  9

Wednesday 3rd                      33                                                11

Thursday 4th                           29                                                  7

Friday 5th                                38                                                  9

Saturday 6th                            13                                                13

Sunday 7th                              15                                                11

Monday 8th                             29                                                10

Tuesday 9th                            9                                                     4

 

Note: The support staff includes Salvation Army and helicopter ground staff (including spouses).

 

 

Note added: 4 fire starts in one RFD under these conditions would strain any RFA. A Regional Fire Emergency was not called, but back in the Dunedin NRFA office, Regional Manager Alan Jackson was taking proactive steps in support. He described his end at the same FRFANZ Conference.
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Presentation by Otago/Southland NRFA Regional Rural Fire Manager Alan Jackson

 

Sunday ‑ 28 February 1999

 

Events leading up to, and the initial stages of the Alexandra fires.

 

4 fires ‑    Young Lane          1307 hours

                 Gilligans Gully       1352 hours

                 Waikerikeri Valley 1512 hours

                 Fruitlands              1531 hours

 

*  Fire Comm. notified me at 1422 hours.

*  Contact maintained with Fire Comm. and gravity of situation soon realised.

*  Went to my office ‑ 1530 hours

*  Decided I needed assistance ‑ requested Dave White and John Speirs to come to my office.

*  Talked to Mike Grant in Southland ‑ he had been listening to the fire service radio as well.

*  Because of difficulties getting info, from Alexandra, asked Mike Grant to go to Alexandra to survey the scene and then take on the role of Incident Controller (my first big mistake – sent Mike by himself). Mike left for Alex. at around 1755 hours

*  Probably around 1630 hours I took on the role of Response Co-ordinator.

*  Discussions with [NRFO] Murray Dudfield and it was decided to put John Barnes [NRFA Christcurch] on standby ‑ approx. 1700 hours.

*  Other fires in the area ‑ Burnside fire the main concern ‑had to be aware of the big picture.

*  Activated John Barnes and team (around 1830 hours) to Alexandra to take on the role of Incident Control Team for Monday.

*  Civil Defence emergency declared at Alexandra at 1800 hours. Talked to Controller and it was agreed that we look after the fires.

*  Because of lack of intelligence particularly with regard to the Fruitlands fire ‑ hired a helicopter and sent Dave White with it to carry out an aerial inspection.

*  From then on full on arranging resources ‑should have had logistic assistance with team in Dunedin.

 

Response Coordination Team role during the Alexandra fires ‑ 28 Feb to 9 March.

 

*  First real use of the CIMS structure

*  Team in Dunedin needed to look at he big picture ‑ there were [7] other fires in the region

*  Mindful of not denuding organisations of key personnel and resources.

*  Very important to get information from the Incident Management Team well in advance of when it was required.

*  At times we tried to pre‑empt what their requests would be.

*  Offered the Alexandra team suggestions and reminders.

*  Near the end there were some difficulties getting key people from the region ‑ maybe we should have cast the net wider.

*  The plan of changing the Incident Management Teams after two (2) day shifts worked okay.

*  The shift changes need to be staggered so that some continuity is maintained.

*  The response coordination team also needs to be rotated regularly.