Port Hills fire: Firefighters 'needlessly' called away

7:41 pm on 17 February 2017

Firefighters were needlessly taken away from a fire in the Port Hills at a crucial time, only to be called back an hour and a half later, their union says.

A house on Worsleys Road that was completely destroyed by the flames.

A house on Worsleys Road that was completely destroyed by the flames. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

To share your pictures of the fire, email us at iwitness@radionz.co.nz

Fire has scorched more than 2000 hectares on the Port Hills in Christchurch.

Eleven homes have been confirmed to be destroyed and more than 1000 people have been evacuated.

Several cordons have now been lifted around the damaged Port Hills area and the large fire was now contained.

But the Professional Firefighters Union says a group of its members were at a location in the Port Hills, had contained a fire there and were told by rural fire operators to return to their station.

Union spokesperson Derek Best said the firefighters had that area of fire under control, but it was not extinguished.

He said about 90 minutes later the professional firefighters were called back to the same location, when the fire was out of control again.

"When they got back there was a pretty significant blaze that had grown a lot in the 90 minutes they were away. These concerns need to be tested in a proper forum, not just in the media, and that's what we want."

He said he wanted an independent inquiry to look into what he described as a total lack of structure and control between the organisations fighting the fires.

Cordons lifted on edge of fire zone

Civil Defence removed the cordon at the corner of Cashmere Road and Penruddock Rise earlier this afternoon, and these residents were now able to return to their properties.

The Christchurch City Council said the cordons at the corner of Early Valley Road and Old Tai Tapu Road, and at Osterholts Rd and Old Tai Tapu Rd, had also been lifted, with access only available from the north.

Authorities have said no further updates on damaged houses will be given until the fire has been put out.

Civil Defence said the fire was largely contained but not yet controlled.

Fire retardant is being laid on the ground, and light, humid winds and overcast conditions are helping firefighters.

About 100 properties remain without power as a result of the fire.

'A lot of miscommunication'

Jo Kinley said she was forced to evacuate her Worsleys Road home yesterday when the fire came within metres of her property.

Worsleys Road resident Jo Kinley.

Worsleys Road resident Jo Kinley. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

She is critical of the communication from Civil Defence.

"There's been no communication except a lot of miscommunication.

"Neighbours up the road got told at 3am yesterday that their house had burned down and their neighbours and then they got told a few hours later that, no, their neighbours had burned down but they hadn't," Ms Kinley said.

There should be one point of contact instead of an 0800 number with somebody on the end who does not know what is going on, she said.

But Civil Defence has defended its handling of residents forced to flee their homes threatened by the fire, saying it was a complex operation.

Canterbury Civil Defence controller John Mackie said it was dealing with an unprecedented situation.

"We've never seen anything the likes of a 2000-hectare fire within a rural and urban environment. So very complex, different parts of legislation, so we have regular meetings with the multiple agencies and try to get a co-ordinated message that we all agree to."

Cause of fire investigated

Police said while there had been speculation about what caused the Port Hills fire, as yet no definitive cause had been established.

Initial enquiries indicated the Summit Road fire was reported approximately 90 minutes after the Early Valley Road fire was reported.

Fire Service investigators asked the police to get involved because of the seriousness of the fires, and the potential they could have been deliberately lit.

A police spokesperson said they would will not speculate on the cause of the fires until the investigation was completed.

The investigation was expected to take some weeks.

Drizzle welcomed but dry heat coming

Bengal Drive, Christchurch fire, Port Hills fire

Overcast weather and a bit of drizzle in Christchurch this morning is helping to prevent another flareup. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

WeatherWatch forecaster Richard Green, who is based in Canterbury, told Morning Report drizzly showers were expected to strengthen over parts of the city today and tomorrow.

He said conditions would likely dry up and heat up by late on Sunday, and dry winds from the north were expected for late February and early March.

Last night firefighters used thermal-imaging technology and high-pressure hoses to manage hotspots within the fire's 30km perimeter.

Selwyn District principal rural fire officer Douglas Marshall said they would be patrolling the Port Hills for four to six weeks.

He told Morning Report they were starting to put more fire retardant lines in place, which is the red material residents could see on the ground.

Scorched hills in Christchurch

Scorched earth in the Port Hills. Photo: RNZ / Julian Vares

Crews dealt with a few minor flare-ups overnight, Civil Defence said.

However, Westmorland resident Steve said he was frustrated at having to wait at a police cordon for two hours yesterday when his family had earlier been let past.

He said the response was "overkill" as his house on Uldale Place was not in imminent danger.

Extinguishing the fire could take a fortnight - mayor

Overseas reinforcements from the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star were assisting nearly 400 firefighters working to extinguish the fire, which has been contained in a 2075ha area.

A Defence Force Hercules plane was due to arrive today with fire retardant brought back from Australia.

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck said Thursday had been a huge turnaround from the previous day.

"[Wednesday] was a disaster; today virtually the whole lot, I would say, is nearly out.

"We had the luck of the weather and the crews - ground and air - worked extremely hard and ... I would say they've saved it - the crisis is over."

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said last night that it could be a fortnight before the fire was completely extinguished.

As well as continuing with firefighting efforts, fire investigators would be heading back into the hills to look for a possible cause.

The fire burns near Worsley Valley in the Port Hills in Christchurch on Thursday 16 February.

The fire burns near Worsley Valley on Thursday. Photo: Supplied / Richard Vance

English gets fire briefing at forward command Centre, Old Tai Tapu Road

PM Bill English gets a briefing on the fire at the emergency services' command centre on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

The Port Hills fire area - the yellow line boundary shows where further fire spread and smoke could pose a risks, and Civil Defence is recommending people keep out of that area..

The Port Hills fire area in orange. The yellow line boundary shows where further fire spread and smoke could pose a risk, and Civil Defence is recommending people keep out of that area. Photo: Supplied

Helicopters and heavy earth-moving equipment are part of the fire response.

Helicopters and heavy earth-moving equipment are part of the fire response. Photo: Supplied / Christchurch City Council