Port Hills fire: Don't be fooled, it's not over yet

11:30 pm on 19 February 2017

A helicopter pilot fighting the Port Hills fires in Christchurch says despite appearances, the battle is not over yet.

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck is among those fighting the Port Hills blaze. Photo: RNZ / Emile Donovan

Alan Beck said if the ground dried out, there was a danger the fire could start up again.

"People look at everything blackened, with no smoke, and they think it's all over - it's not," he said.

"This is one of the most dangerous fires I've worked on in my 45 years of flying."

Fire crews said today the fire was under control, but warmer temperatures this week could spell flare-ups.

Mr Beck said pilots today dropped 90 tonnes of water on hot spots every hour, which kept the fire contained.

They were working in difficult conditions, with intense heat and steam rising from the burnt ground.

Steve Askin during his SAS service.

Helicopter pilots are yet to stop and grieve for their colleague, former SAS soldier Steve Askin, who died when his helicopter crashed while he fought the Port Hills fire on Tuesday. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

Mr Beck said pilots had not had time to stop and grieve for their colleague, pilot Steve Askin, who died when his helicopter crashed while he fought the blaze on Tuesday afternoon.

"It's his funeral tomorrow - we'll try to get to it, but we know his family will understand if we're needed on the job."

A Fire Service spokesman said the helicopters had finished for the day, but ground crews would continue firefighting efforts overnight.

Fire will pose threat for about a week

Principal rural fire commander Richard McNamara said today the Port Hills fire was under control, but could pose a threat for a further week.

Logan McMillan pics: Port Hills fire remains  on Thursday 16 February 2017.

The fire burned through large swathes of the Port Hills. Photo: RNZ / Logan McMillan

Mr McNamara told a media briefing on Sunday the focus was containment.

There was still a lot of "fuel" for the fire, such as trees - particularly around the Dyers Pass Rd area.

Three fixed-wing aircraft have dropped fire retardant on the fire's perimeter to create a 50 metre buffer zone. The Fire Service said the retardant was environmentally friendly.

Helicopter crews were briefly grounded this afternoon because of fog and wind gusting about 55 kilometres an hour.

About 68 percent of the fire was contained, but the risk remained "significant", the Christchurch City Council said this evening.

Air crews were using infrared cameras to identify areas that were still burning or smouldering.

It was a complex situation.

"Crews are doing all they can to get to the areas where the fires are still actively burning underground or are at risk of igniting," the council said.

Two hours to grab essentials

Anxious residents of Christchurch's Port Hills today went back to their homes for the first time in days after being forced to flee because of the fires.

People living in Hoon Hay Valley Rd, Kennedys Bush Rd and part of Worsleys Rd were allowed back briefly today.

It came after days of frustration for those who were not allowed back to their properties, even if they were undamaged, because of the fire risk.

Among those to head up Worsleys Rd were Doug and Vicki Pflaum, whose daughter, Kim, filmed the burnt-out remains of their home of 25 years.

At the Hoon Hay Valley Road cordon, police gave strict instructions to be out by midday or officers would retrieve them.

Most told RNZ said their homes had little or no damage, but one man said he would see his destroyed house for the first time.

People had two hours to check on their properties and collect essential things.

Cory Beynon said he wanted to feed his chickens and cats and clean out the fridge and freezer.

"The main thing is checking on my cat," Rachel Cullens said. "She escaped from the house when we were evacuating."

Gordon Milne wanted to get the crayfish and fillet steak out of the freezer and "see if my cat's there and my passport".

Hoon Hay valley road resident Cory Beynon with his son Levi.

Hoon Hay valley road resident Cory Beynon with his son Levi. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

Another resident wanted to get underwear and socks and turn on his generator to power his freezer.

Cory Beynon wanted to stay in his Hoon Hay Valley Road home.

"Well there was fire there before we shifted out so if there's another fire well, why not just stay in there," he said.

Mr Beynon said he was prepared to evacuate quickly if he had to.

Mr Milne said he was happy to wait until the experts said it was safe.

"The back of our property is pretty hot, so, with the way everything works underground, there is potential for flare-ups so that's the best way," Mr Milne said.

A house on Worsleys Rd, Christchurch surrounded by singed vegetation. Photo taken February 19 2017

A house on Worsleys Rd, Christchurch surrounded by singed vegetation. Photo: RNZ / Emile Donovan

Residents of evacuated homes on Worsleys Road were not allowed home this morning because it was too risky, but this afternoon authorities gave the green light for residents of 43 properties to head home and deal with urgent needs.

The homes were along Worsleys Road to Aglaia Terrace and 341 and 341a Worsleys Road.

Several houses beyond that property were still inaccessible.

The Christchurch City Council said in a statement at 6pm: "We understand the frustration and challenges Port Hills residents who have only had limited access to their property will be feeling, but would like to remind everyone that the situation remains complex."

Meanwhile, all Christchurch schools and early childhood education centres will be open as normal tomorrow.

Cashmere Primary School has confirmed that it will be open, and the Cashmere Early Learning Centre and Kidsfirst Cashmere Kindergarten will also be open again.

Six cordons in place, Port Hills tracks closed

Six cordons are in place with 150 properties still evacuated.

About 150 firefighters and 15 aircraft are working to put out the fire today.

Civil Defence said two thirds of it was controlled, and wind direction and hot spots were the main risks today.

Fire behaviour specialist Nathan Keoghan said the ground temperature of hotspots in the fire area could be anything between 100°C and 500°.

He said about three millimetres of rain over the last 24 hours had been helpful but much more would be needed to cool the ground temperatures.

"About 50 millimetres in one day, or 30 millimetres over three consecutive days, is needed to cool the extreme ground temperatures and lessen the risk of unburnt fuel catching fire," Mr Keoghan said.

"Warm temperatures forecast with windy conditions could change things very quickly. It would draw any moisture from the ground in a few hours and could result in flare-ups."

Meanwhile, the Christchurch City Council has closed many walking and mountain-biking tracks in the Port Hills because of the public safety risk.

The restricted zones cover all tracks and open areas in the Port Hills, including Victoria Park and the Rapaki, Mt Vernon and Huntsbury tracks.

The restrictions are likely to be in place for several weeks while crews work to put out the fires.

A plane dropping fire retardant over the Port Hills.

A plane dropping fire retardant over the Port Hills. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

Fire two thirds controlled

Mr McNamara said the fire was 68 percent controlled, and he hoped to reduce the number of helicopters being used over the next few days, to give crews a well-deserved break.

He said the winds were stronger today than they had been, and a considerable amount of low cloud was blanketing the Port Hills.

It was tough for crews working in the conditions, but each day that passed without heat or wind was a win, he said.

Mr McNamara said the Port Hills fire was not the biggest in New Zealand history, but it had the greatest effect on communities.

Homes were lost and one of their own died. They were gutted they could not save the 11 houses that burned.

Mr McNamara said he knew everything was done that could have been done, but emotionally it was gut-wrenching.

Richard McNamara Rural Fire officer Port Hills fire Christchurch. February 19 2017.

Rural Fire officer Richard McNamara. Photo: RNZ / Emile Donovan

Army chefs help to feed firefighters

The Defence Force has set up a field kitchen to provide meals to those fighting the fire on the Part Hills in Christchurch.

Nine army chefs are preparing three meals a day for at least 250 emergency workers from a kitchen set up near Halswell Quarry.

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Loftus said about 30 defence force firefighters had been working since the scrub fire broke out last week, and 150 soldiers had been helping with patrols.

He said the kitchen was another way to provide support and the kitchen would stay for as long as it was needed.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs