Just after 11 am on Friday 30 January, a Cherokee plane met with difficulties on a training flight. In making an emergency landing on Kaitorete Spit, it triggered a blaze across 55 hectares of tinder-dry land.
Assessing the plane wreckage
Thankfully the two pilots on board escaped relatively unharmed from the ordeal. The Department of Conservation (DOC) is also sincerely relieved that the fire did not do more damage to the naturally and archaeologically significant area.
DOC Ranger, Dave Milward, has great respect for Kaitorete’s resilient wildlife and long history.
“It’s incredibly lucky that the fire stayed clear of the rare katipo and pïngao country towards the shoreline or west towards the nationally important Kaitorete Spit Scientific Reserve”, Milward said.
“If the flames had travelled just 100 metres further, the conservation losses could have been immeasurable.”
Aerial view of the fire damage
Kaitorete is the largest indigenous dune ecosystem of its type in the country. Sun-baked, wind-blasted and pounded by the sea, this fascinating strip of land has been shaped by the elements. As a consequence it has developed incredible flora and fauna designed to withstand this natural assault. Rare and remarkable species found here include katipo spiders, spotted skinks/mokomoko, flightless moths and the largest remaining population of pīngao in New Zealand.
The spit’s ancestral name is Kā Poupou a Te Rakihouia (the great eel weir of Te Rakihouia). It has considerable cultural value to Ngāi Tahu—historically providing an important bridge between the peninsula and south, as well as a place of seasonal food-gathering, tool-making and fishing camps.
Kaitorete's pīngao-clad dunes
Sadly many of the conditions that give Kaitorete its significance also leave the area wide open to the threat of fire as well as increasing disturbance from off-road vehicles and invasive species.
“The public need not go to the lengths of unexpectedly falling out of the sky to cause a serious blaze in this area”, Murray Lane, Incident Controller at the fire, pointed out.
“Right now much of Canterbury is between 80 to 100% cured and ready to burn. People only have to look at the grasslands to see how dry it is - one careless moment and you will have a fire.”