16 Feb 2017

Port Hills fire: Firefighters make good progress against blaze

9:18 pm on 16 February 2017

Strong progress has been made in the fight against the Port Hills Fire, the Fire service says, but the Christchurch mayor is warning the battle is far from over.

Two main fires merged into one large blaze spreading across 2000 hectares today.

Almost 400 people were battling the flames on the ground today, with helicopters continuing to drop monsoon buckets from the air.

The Fire Service had 40 crews with 45 pumps and tankers, and more than 130 fire-fighters on the ground.

There were also 26 rural fire crews with more than 200 personnel, while 14 helicopters were in the air, along with three planes.

Lower winds and cooler conditions today have given them a good shot at stopping the fire.

Firefighters and civil defence staff are briefed.

Firefighters and civil defence staff are briefed. Photo: Supplied / Christchurch City Council

Selwyn's principal rural fire officer Douglas Marshall told Checkpoint there had not been any significant flare-ups today and his crew would monitor the situation closely overnight.

He said he hoped containment lines can be formed tomorrow around parts of the fire.

But the mayor of Christchurch said the danger from the fires was far from over.

Lianne Dalziel told Checkpoint the situation was better than yesterday, but it was not under control yet.

She said a lot of teams would have to remain on the ground, making sure the fires did not flare up again, for at least two weeks.

The Christchurch City Council said all current police cordons in the Port Hills will remain in place tonight.

They were likely to continue until Saturday, when they will be reassessed.

Prime Minister Bill English, centre, and Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee at  emergency services headquarters.

Prime Minister Bill English, centre, and Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee at emergency services headquarters. Photo: RNZ / Logan Church

Fire investigators are calling on anyone who took photos and videos around when the Port Hills fire started, to hand them in.

Fire Investigation Services spokesman Ken Legat said they were looking for specific plumes, and plume height, in an effort to build up a timeline of when the event occurred.

Mr Legat said he would literally be on his hands and knees on the side of the hill looking for the cause of the fire this evening.

Fire crews planning their next move.

Fire crews working out strategy for tackling the blaze. Photo: Christchurch City Council

Frightened residents flee

Of the homes confirmed to have been destroyed, three are known to be on Worsleys Road and two on Hoon Hay Valley Road.

Early Valley Road resident John Gordon has lost everything apart from a couple of pictures and a computer in the fire.

The family were evacuated last night and had no idea their house, and more than 40 classic cars had been lost, until they returned home the next morning.

He said no one told them they had lost their home and they turned the corner of their street to find their home had been razed to the ground.

Mr Gordon said the full extent of the loss was still sinking in, but the fire coming on top of the earthquake would likely mean his family will leave Christchurch.

About 450 homes were evacuated by the police and hundreds more people decided to leave themselves.

A Kennedys Bush resident, Babs, rebuilt in the hill suburb after losing her Scarborough home in the earthquake.

No-one there is allowed back to their homes.

She said residents could see the fire moving from place to place yesterday, but it seemed the resources were not there to respond.

"We self-evaluated because we could see it went into the trees. As we left they brought the evacuation in.

"Personally I don't think they got onto it quick enough. The firefighters and these guys (the helicopter crews) are absolutely amazing.

"The feeling around here is... I don't think the organisation running it was up to it."

Meanwhile Cashmere Hills resident Alistair Hodson said his family left home early this morning after being told to evacuate.

He said he left his house at 2am after hearing police on a speaker telling people down his street to leave.

Mr Hodson spent the evening at the Halswell Centre that was opened to evacuees, while his two dogs slept in his car.

He said it had the whole situation had been surreal and frightening.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life and I've lived up there for probably 16 years, so it's quite incredible that Christchurch is sort of dealing with this at the moment."

Civil Defence said it was too soon to say with any certainty when people evacuated from their homes could return.

It said people needed to monitor the Civil Defence and Christchurch City Council website and social media channels.

The Canterbury District Health Board said two adults and a child had been treated in relation to the fire but none were serious.

A man rolled his ankle while evacuating, a fire fighter was treated for smoke inhalation and a nine year old boy was treated for asthma.

The wreckage of the helicopter that crashed while fighting the Port hills blazes on Tuesday, killing pilot Steve Askin, is airlifted off the hills.

The wreckage of the helicopter that crashed while fighting the Port hills blazes on Tuesday, killing pilot Steve Askin, is airlifted off the hills. Photo: Supplied / TAIC

Helicopter recovered

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) said it had recovered the wreckage of the helicopter that crashed on Tuesday while helping to fight the fire.

The pilot, David Steven Askin, died in the accident.

TAIC investigator Steve Walker said the recovery operation had been challenging.

"The wreckage was in a steep gully under the Sugarloaf and conditions were hot and windy, making it challenging for the ground crew loading the wreckage, and the investigators."

The wreckage will be transported to Wellington for further analysis.

Fire response will be reviewed - PM

Prime Minister Bill English has been visiting the forward firefighting forward command centre and has been flown by helicopter over the fire.

Mr English says while the fires are still a serious threat it is not the time to looking at whether a state of emergency should have been called a few hours earlier.

However, he said it would be reviewed after the fire.

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee expressed concern yesterday about how long it took to declare an emergency, early in the evening by the Christchurch and Selwyn mayors.

Mr Brownlee said he didn't have enough information yesterday to declare a state of emergency and the most accurate advice he was getting was from the media.

Meanwhile the government this afternoon moved a special motion noting the ongoing disaster.

MPs expressed their solidarity with the people of Christchurch as Parliament moved a special motion noting the ongoing disaster.

Party leaders paid tribute to the emergency workers on the ground and offered sympathy and support to those whose property and safety were at risk.

Justice Minister Amy Adams told the House the visiting American Coast Guard vessel would also help out.

"The United States Antarctic Search vessel Polar Star, which is in Lyttleton, made an informal approach to provide personnel assistance to the inter-agency response, which has been formally accepted by the New Zealand government.

"Defence Force personnel in Christchurch are engaging with the Polar Star to determine the best employment of these additional personnel."

Last October, the navy destroyer USS Sampson became the first American naval ship to enter New Zealand waters in 30 years, and ending up assisting with evacuations after the Kaikoura quakes.