'Apocalyptic' sight as the Port Hills burn

1:57 pm on 16 February 2017
The Port Hills fire at 5.30am on Thursday.

The Port Hills fire at 5.30am on Thursday. Photo: Supplied / Gary Jamieson

Three of us are standing on the deck of a white ute at 5.30am watching pine trees popping into fluorescent shades of red, orange and yellow.

We are strangers to each other.

The ute's owner is straining to see whether his father's house on the opposite ridgeline will survive the flames.

He is joined by a woman, in a dressing gown, who lives a couple of doors down on Christchurch's Hackthorne Road.

She's had a sleepless night because of the glowing and smoking valley at the back of her property.

I'm out for an early morning run - normally a quiet and lonely exercise - but prevented from going higher into the Port Hills' wonderful tracks by a police cordon.

As I hop on the ute's deck, its tall, broad and burly owner says: "See those really bright spots up there... think they are houses that are gone.

"Dad's away at the moment, but who knows whether the house will be there when he gets back,'' he says.

The woman consoles him: "You never know, it might be OK.''

He nods in agreement, but says nothing.

We all take photos. It feels wrong, but there is something mesmerising about the fire lines snaking, and wrapping themselves, around the landscape.

The lights from many police cars and fire engines are dotted at points on the Port Hills.

The woman jumps off the ute, saying she better get back home in case her children wake up.

The ute owner says he wants to get home to see the 6am TV news. I thank him and head back up the hill to the cordon.

I'm told I can't go any further. As I turn to head back down, a family with a car load of their belongings passes by me. They look harried.

To get a better view I head down to Pioneer Stadium in Hoon Hay. From here I can see the fire stretching from the back of Sugar Loaf, where the big transmission aerial is perched above Christchurch, down towards Westmorland.

The sun is lifting up to the left of Sugar Loaf. To say it looks scary and ominous doesn't do it justice. Apocalyptic might be better.

Before I set off to get back home, I bump into another runner. A man, John, in his mid-40s.

We start talking about what the fire means for people and their houses, but also the tracks. The Port Hills are the city's playground.

John, just keeping check of his emotions, describes what a wonderful place it is to run in several times a week. "It's such a shame, sad," he says. He is right. It's a bloody great shame.

I return home, several police cars pass by and water tanker is being filled by two firefighters from a street hydrant. The firefighters look stuffed. The air tastes like soot and gets stuck in the back of one's throat.

Later, driving my 5-year-old son to school, he looks out the back of the car and asks: "What are all those big flies up there buzzing around the hill?'" I try to explain they are helicopters fighting the big fire, that they can dump water, just like his lego chopper, that some people have lost homes. He replies: "I hope they got their toys out …that's really sad, dad.''

He is right, it is sad.