It was a hot, dry, cloudless day on February 5, 2019. There hadn’t been rain in weeks in the Tasman region, and temperatures were soaring above record levels. On that Tuesday it was 28 degrees.
A tractor was discing a tinder-dry, stony paddock of tall grass, with warm conditions, wind and extreme fire danger. It was the perfect storm, and one spark was all it took to ignite the paddock.
Strong winds meant that the fire spread rapidly, and within weeks it had ripped through 2300 hectares, destroyed a home, fences, pastures and caused 2500 to evacuate their homes.
It was the largest wildfire in New Zealand in nearly 70 years.
At 2:16 Wakefield volunteer fire brigade were alerted to the blaze, with fire trucks arriving at 2.26pm and 2.34pm.
Despite only taking half an hour for a chopper to arrive, the fire was out of control. Within two hours it had travelled nearly 7km.
By 6:30pm that night, nearby residents were already being evacuated.
In the coming days, a total of 61 chopper units from around the country turned up to join the firefighting effort.
A Civil Defence State of Emergency was declared on February 6, the day after the blaze started.
The fire burned for three weeks, ripping through thousands of hectares of land in Pigeon Valley and forced thousands of residents to evacuate from Pigeon, Eves, Teapot and Redwood valleys, Golden Hills Road, and Wakefield.
Tasman Pine, who owned a substantial part of the forestry that the fire ripped through, lost just over 1400 hectares of forest.
Tasman District Council Mayor Tim King says the fire was a hugely challenging time for the region, especially for those evacuated from their homes.
“A fire on this scale, on top of the drought conditions at the time, could have felt overwhelming, but my lasting memory is the huge response from our community. It was an incredible effort all round and it made me feel proud of the place that I live and the people I share it with.”
The fire spread over 2316 hectares, spanning 36.4km, an even greater area than 2017 Port Hills fires in Christchurch.
After 22 days the Civil Defence State of Emergency was lifted on February 27, and the region moved into a transition phase from response to recovery.
In August last year, the fire was deemed accidental in a report by Fire and Emergency New Zealand. The report by wildfire investigator Jamie Cowan revealed how a contractor’s disc plough had struck stones at least 18 times before the spark that started the fire, with “a significant amount of steel smeared onto the rocks”.
“I was surprised it had been disced, it was so rocky,” Jamie said in the report.
Jamie said that he was confident that the fire was caused by the operation of discs in stony ground.
Jamie also investigated the Rabbit Island fire on February 6 and the blaze at Iwa Road in Nelson on February 8. He found that both fires had been deliberately lit.