Lake Ōhau ignites a catalyst for the inhabitants of St Arnaud

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A South Island town surrounded by flammable vegetation is asking its residents to carefully check their fire plans after the devastating fire that ravaged Lake Ōhau last year.

Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

And it looks like other cities are following suit.

The rural community of St Arnaud has been seriously awakened after a large fire ravaged another small settlement at Lac Ōhau several hundred kilometers further south.

The Ōhau lake fire was one of the worst in the country, destroying nearly 50 properties.

Frame of a vestige of a house in the village of Lake Lakehau.

Frame of a vestige of a house in the village of Lake Ōhau.
Photo: Provided

In Nelson Lakes, the community of St Arnaud thinks it could just as easily have been their town in flames.

At the annual holiday barbecue hosted by the Volunteer Fire Hall, they taught Bach residents and owners about the risk of fire and called on the community to “burn” their properties.

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Volunteer Fire Chief Wattie Mortimer said the Lake Ōhau blaze had put fire safety back on their minds.

They therefore proposed several measures.

“First, reduce the risk in the village, whether it is the burning of fires, the reduction of fuels around people’s homes; issuing paint buckets to hot ashes to reduce the risk of fires from people who dispose of ash incorrectly.

“And we also looked at the fire escape plan and we really realized that there needs to be more focus on the individual.”

Appointed fire wardens

Resident fire guards have also been put in place to assist with evacuation if needed.

In addition to the normal fire hazard, there is also another problem.

Robbie Thomson is a member of the local fire department and was recently appointed a Hazard Reduction Officer.

He said that because the city is on the edge of a national park, there has always been a philosophy of “you won’t cut down the trees,” allowing highly flammable plants to grow too tall.

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There are five flammability classes for plants native to New Zealand, and unfortunately for St Arnaud the majority of their vegetation is mānuka and kānuka trees – which are the two species in the highest class.

No legend

Fire breaks are created between the mānuka and kānuka trees.
Photo: 123RF

Thomson worked tirelessly to create what’s called a green clipping, thinning out flammable plants allowing less flammable species to grow.

“Have an area like the firewall where it slows down [the fire] that would give you maybe up to half an hour where the helicopters would come in and dive from the lake and help us save the village.

“You have indeed cut the fire in half.”

FENZ ready to help you

And it looks like other communities are following suit.

Graeme Still, who is a national wildfire specialist, said the Port Hills fire in 2017, the Nelson fires in 2019 and, more recently, the lachau lake fire have prompted communities to take more precautions and to practice fire safety more widely.

Over the next 20 years, he said New Zealand will see an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires.

It welcomes communities who do their part to reduce risk.

“For communities looking for what they can do, all they need to do is contact Fire and Emergency and we can point them in the right direction.”

Mortimer said they especially want bach owners to take care of them while on vacation.

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