7 Jan 2015

Fire crews on standby

9:50 am on 7 January 2015

Deliberately lit fires and dry conditions have fire officers throughout the country on high alert.

Fire bans are in place for Central Otago, and parts of Canterbury, and will soon be ordered in Gisborne and parts of the Far North.

The fire danger on the east coast of both islands was being assessed with officers in Central Otago and the Hauraki District on high alert.

National Rural Fire Officer Kevin O'Connor said dry conditions meant fires could be caused by simple things.

"Using a mower, it can hit a stone and a spark can occur and a fire occurred the other day where someone was welding and the spark from the welder flew off into the grass and a fire began," he said.

"It's really about communities being aware of the risk and just managing in that context."

Most rural fire districts were now on a restricted fire season, requiring a permit to light an open fire and Mr O'Connor said even those who don't require a permit should be mindful of wind changes and refuel vehicles on a concrete pad or on shingle, rather than in a paddock.

Meanwhile authorities were appealing for information to help catch the person responsible for a spate of suspicious fires in the Canterbury district of Waimakariri over the past three months.

The region's principal rural fire officer Tim Sheppard said this included a fire at a pine plantation on Monday near Kaiapoi, which caused 40 homes to be evacuated.

"Just recently we've been seeing activity in three areas in the district, behind Cust, in the foothills there, Fernside, we've had a few fires there all of the same pattern," he said.

"We appeal to people to be vigilant [and to] look out for cars in odd places or activity that doesn't usually occur around your area."

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis said the dry weather and annual restrictions on water usage from rivers highlighted the need for systems that captured snowmelt to keep paddocks irrigated and help supply rural fire services with water.

"The benefits as well is the irrigated land doesn't burn like the dry land. I note on the television the other night, there was a picture of the Mackenzie fire and there was one irrigated paddock that wasn't burnt."

Mr Curtis said while the initial problem was a lack of stored water, the dry weather was also a contributing factor and funding from the community, such as regional council, should be sought to help fast track water storage systems that use water from alpine environments.

President of the Pines Beach Kairaki Beach Residents Association Peter Midgley said Pines Beach was a strong community and a watch group kept a regular lookout.

He said after the Christchurch earthquakes there were two major arson attacks on red-zoned houses.

Mr Midgley said even if the latest fire was not deliberately started, the area may not have escaped the worst of the fire season, as conditions next month were expected to be dryer.

Police are asking the public to avoid the cordoned area around the plantation while the scene is investigated.

Police are asking the public to avoid the cordoned area around the plantation while the scene is investigated. Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps