Fires sparked by freight train in Canterbury could have been avoided, councillor says

More care needs to be taken to prevent grass fires along the rail corridor in Canterbury during summer, a Selwyn district councillor says.

Malvern Ward councillor Lydia Gliddon said fires sparked by a freight train shunting wagons on Sunday threatened homes between Aylesbury and Darfield west of Christchurch - and could have been avoided.

The fires that were reported to emergency services around 4.15pm initially threatened a number of homes, but no properties were damaged.

Seventeen Fire and Emergency crews, as well as the three helicopters battled the fires.

By 7.30pm FENZ confirmed that houses in the area, and especially near Kirwee, were "no longer ... under immediate threat from fire", and no homes had been damaged.

KiwiRail said a freight train shunting wagons from a milk factory in West Rolleston was responsible for "a number of grass fires along the track".

Gliddon said it was not the first time they have occurred in the area, and the outcome could have been worse.

She said it had been a very anxious time for Kirwee residents.

There had been "numerous fires burning" and it must have been "incredibly stressful" for those in around 40 homes which were under threat.

There was farmland alongside as well. It was around three hours before it was known there was no longer any threat, she said.

"Three hours is a long time when you've got a fire burning outside your home."

Firefighters had been pulled in from as far away as Christchurch to help deal with the blaze which had put both homes and farmland at risk.

"We're looking at kilometres of fire and if that spread into the farmland, so the cropping farms alongside the rail corridor, that could be even more detrimental if you're looking at crops on fire, especially coming into harvest season when the crops are dry."

It was very hot and dry near the railway lines with metre-high grass and if a train was throwing out sparks as it travelled along the rail corridor it could result "in quite a long stretch of fire".

There were also farms near Kirwee with gorse hedges which would also burn well, Gliddon said.

It had been a problem "for quite some time".

"Some of the landowners are well aware of the risk of living next to a rail corridor and they mitigate the issues themselves by having permanent fire breaks, but it only takes one or two people to not have that and you can end up in quite a lot of trouble quite quickly."

The train line between Rolleston and Darfield was closed overnight, and State Highway 73 was closed while firefighters worked to contain the fires.

Gliddon wants to see KiwiRail front the issue and take steps to prevent further fires from occurring.

KiwiRail has been approached for comment.

Kirwee township resident Pauline Hubbard, who lives near the railway line, told RNZ the fire began moments after a train went past.

"It had six locomotives pulling the train, and it was soon after that the fire started. And apparently - my daughter's just rung me, and she said there were sparks coming out from the locomotives."

Meanwhile, two fire crews continue to monitor what remains of the string of scrub fires.

Fire and Emergency said the fires have been contained and crews still at the scene were checking for hotspots.