New wildfire warning system

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A new rapid-response warning system has been set up for Wakatipu residents in high-risk wildfire areas. 

Those in dangerous so-called ‘Red Zones’ – where wilding pines can quickly turn a fire into a monster – can now buy new emergency pagers. 

The pagers are available to those in or near Bob’s Cove, Closeburn, Wilsons Bay, Moke Lake Road and Fernhill. 

A new cellphone-activated transmitter at the top of the hill at Wilsons Bay sends messages to the pagers alerting residents of any imminent fire danger. 

The Department of Conservat–ion and Queenstown Lakes District Council have spent $7000 installing the system – but residents must choose to buy the pagers. 

A stand-alone one is about $250 whilst an associated amplifier is another $200 – making a total cost of $450 for the system. 

DoC Queenstown rural fire officer Jamie Cowan says it is a significant cost and the decision is up to residents. 

“It’s giving residents the opportunity to make their own choices to be responsible for their own property.” 

Cowan suggests some sort of community funding may be able to be applied for to ease the financial burden. 

However, he’s adamant plugging into the system is crucial for improving the chances of surviving when a fire takes off in those areas – as happened at Closeburn in 2005 and to a lesser extent in 2010 and 2011. 

“The phone system is too slow in the Red Zone, given the tonnage of fuel on slopes. 

“It’s all about speed, getting the information out fast because on a bad day fire moves very quickly in this landscape.” 

In the 2005 Closeburn blaze, 30 homes were evacuated. 

Cowan says the 2005 event was a wake-up call for DoC, council and residents. 

“It was a catalyst for communities to understand that they had a risk – probably more significant than you see in the rest of New Zealand – and more like what you see in Australia or America where people are living in pine forest. 

“It’s a relatively new risk because if you go back 50 years ago you didn’t have houses in pines,” he says. 

DoC and the council are hosting a public demonstration of the new system this Saturday when people can order their pagers.