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Spate of fires exacerbate ‘atrocious’ Malborough conditions

Farmers are weighing up asking for a drought to be declared in the Marlborough region as “atrocious” conditions sparked several fires across the South Island yesterday, including one which closed State Highway 1 and halted train services on the main trunk line.

The blaze was estimated to have swept across 30 to 50ha of grassland, billowing thick smoke across the highway at Dashwood Pass, north of Seddon.

It was fuelled by a strong northwesterly wind, which gusted up to 63km/h in some places, as temperatures hit 27C.

Other vegetation fires broke out across North Canterbury, including one at Achray Rd and another at Swannanoa, which incinerated about two hectares.

The dry conditions are worrying for farmers, with Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy due to meet Canterbury farmers tomorrow to see the situation for himself. 

Federated Farmers said it was weighing up whether to request a drought be declared in the Marlborough region, as the hot, dry conditions looked set to continue.

Marlborough provincial president Greg Harris said the region had not had a significant amount of rain – enough to replenish the aquifers – for 10 months.

Government figures showed the last time Blenheim saw a decent amount of rain was June.

Mr Harris had contacted the Federated Farmers head office to discuss declaring a drought in the region.

“We’ve had vineyards which have been notified of total water shut-off, so you’ve got people’s livelihoods affected.”

Many farmers were being forced to move or sell stock and buy feed, he said. 

Low river levels were affecting fish stocks, while the viticulture industry was forced to freight water into the area, with companies unable to keep up with demand, he said. 

“If the dry continues, we’ve got some serious issues there,” Mr Harris said. 

However, he said asking for a drought to be declared was a sensitive issue, which he had to weigh up before it was approved by the Federated Farmers head office.

After that, the request would be sent to the Ministry for Primary Industries, before Mr Guy would decide if a drought should be declared.

“It’s got to be managed well and if that means declaring a drought area is the best option for us, that’s the avenue we’ll go down,” Mr Harris said.

“At the moment we’re trying to manage things the best we can. But certainly if these conditions continue it will fast-track that.”

The Dashwood Pass grass fire broke out on farmer Wayne Boyce’s land in steep hill country as conditions became “extreme”.

“It couldn’t have got much worse,” Mr Boyce said.

Speaking after coming home from helping fire crews to fight the blaze, he said: “It looks somewhere in the vicinity of 50ha, I would say, that’s been burned.

“But it was pretty atrocious conditions when the fire was going, with the wind and everything.” 

At its peak, six helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft were dousing the flames from above, while a team of 30 firefighters tackled it from the ground, focusing their energies on preventing it from leaping across SH1.

The highway was forced to close for a time, while rail services were also stopped.


Monthly rainfall

Total Blenheim rainfall by month (measured in millimetres):

• January 2015 so far 0.2mm

• December 2014 43.6mm 

• November 21mm

• October 21.2mm

• September 40mm

• August 26mm

• July 19.6mm

• June 106.2mm

– NZ Herald


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