Homes destroyed, families evacuated as Christchurch fires spread

By Sam Hurley, Kurt Bayer, Melissa Nightingale, NZ Herald staff

WHAT WE KNOW

• State of emergency declared in Christchurch and Selwyn.
• A helicopter pilot is dead and at least eight homes have been destroyed.
• At least three houses have been destroyed in the Worsley Rd area, not 40 as previously reported by Civil Defence.
• Several fires have now merged into one which is threatening a densely populated suburban area.
• Reports of 1000 people evacuating, up to 400 forced to evacuate by authorities.
• Te Hapua Halswell Centre and the Nga Hau e Wha Marae are open for evacuated residents.
• Police and the Defence Force are evacuating residents in the suburb of Cashmere Hills.
• Residents on Long Hurst Terrace, off Dyers Pass Rd are told to evacuate immediately.
• Homes along Kennedys Bush, Cashmere and Hoon Hay Valley roads are being evacuated.
• Homes from the Sign of the Takahe to Victoria Park are being evacuated.
• Several road closures.
• A health warning issued for anyone suffering respiratory issues to contact their GP.
• Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft have been stood down but fire crews will remain on the ground overnight.

More than 1000 residents have fled their homes and at least eight properties have burned to the ground as a huge wild fire rages on in Christchurch.

Terrified residents ran clutching precious belongings or bundled children into cars as the black smoke ballooned from the flames tearing through tinder dry scrub land.

Several fires have now merged into one which is threatening dense residential housing. The blaze is estimated to have scorched more than 1850ha of land and is still growing.

A state of emergency was declared in Christchurch and Selwyn, the Defence Force was deployed and health authorities issued warnings to vulnerable residents as black smoke drifted across the city.

Civil Defence revised down the number of homes destroyed on Worsley Spur tonight to at least three after earlier issuing a statement saying 40 homes had been lost.

A spokeswoman said the error was the result of misinformation being given to a rural fire officer and was revised following a "correction from the police on earlier information".

The incorrect figure was widely reported earlier tonight by media and made it into some copies of the morning Herald.

Little information was available on how the error occurred but hard questions will no doubt be asked of authorities in the morning.

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee earlier yesterday questioned the emergency response, saying he was "perplexed" over why a state of emergency was not declared earlier.

When contacted just after midnight about the developing emergency situation, Brownlee said, "You've got to be kidding. Call me in the morning."

As the fire raged on, additional police and Defence Force staff were brought in to work through the night evacuating households at risk from the huge flames.

"Police and New Zealand Defence personnel are currently evacuating homes in the Kennedys Bush, Cashmere and Hoon Hay Valley roads as well as homes from the Sign of the Takahe to Victoria Park. The advice from Civil Defence is that if you have any concerns about your safety, leave your home."

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Selwyn Principal Rural Fire Officer Douglas Marshall said staff had earlier evacuated about 300 to 400 people from the area and hundreds more had self-evacuated.

Marshall said the fires were no longer contained.

Emergency services from outside the region were being mobilised to battle the fire and staff were looking at a national coordination effort to bring in further resources.

"We're really struggling at the moment without the helicopters. It's too dangerous at night for those. We are trying to do any structure protection we can but that's got to be balanced with lives."

Emergency evacuations were underway in the Cashmere Hills after the fire jumped Dyers Pass Rd into Victoria Park.

Police were also evacuating properties on Long Hurst Terrace, off Dyers Pass Road, and warning residents to leave their properties immediately.

Displaced residents can head to the welfare centre at Halswell Library, Halswell Rd and the Nga Hau e Wha Marae is also open.

Anyone not able to evacuate themselves or concerned about a flare up which may threaten lives or property should call 111.

Emily Rose Maree told the Herald she was evacuated just before midnight from her mother's house in Ravensdale Rise, Westmorland.

"Police were door knocking and advising everyone they needed to leave immediately.

"Police and army patrols have put a cordon in place at the corner Cashmere Rd/Penruddock Rise stopping anyone entering the area and advising people that when leaving you cannot come back until further notice and instructions."

Helicopters and fixed planes have been stood down for the night, but fire crews will remain on the ground overnight.

"There is the potential for fires to continue to spread towards residential properties overnight, with fresh easterly winds continuing," Civil Defence has warned.

"Evacuation areas will be extended overnight if the need arises."

Kordia CEO Scott Bartlett says the company's transmission site at the summit of Sugarloaf is under "significant threat" from the fire.

The transmission site provides several services, including television and radio for the Christchurch area.

Bartlett said the company was preparing for the worst.

Smoke from the Port Hills Fires can be seen from space. Picture / NASA
Smoke from the Port Hills Fires can be seen from space. Picture / NASA



Senior Sergeant Steve Bothamley said police would have extra patrols out overnight to assist those in the areas affected by the fires and provide reassurance to residents.

Police will also be checking in on those affected by an earlier power outages that affected more than 80,000 homes across the city.

Meanwhile, three investigations are under way Ex-SAS serviceman David Steven Askin, 38, died in a Squirrel chopper crash while fighting the fire near the Sugarloaf car park in the Port Hills on Tuesday.

Police, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission are all investigating the crash. Officials hope to retrieve the wreckage today.

Evacuations are happening in the following areas:

• Worsley Rd
• Hoon Hay Rd - from Cashmere Rd, and
• Kennedys Bush Rd - from Cashmere Rd.
• Dyers Pass Rd has also been evacuated from Sign of the Takahe
• Early Valley Rd

Road Closures

• Cashmere Rd is closed west of Kaiwara St through to Kennedys Bush Rd.
• Worsley Rd is closed
• Hoon Hay Valley Rd is closed
• Kennedys Bush Rd is closed form the roundabout with Rock Hill Drive. This includes the southbound cycle track
• Worsley Track from Worsley Rd is closed
• Dyers Pass Rd is closed between Hackthorne Rd to Governors Bay Rd. Use the Lyttelton Tunnel or Gebbies Pass as the alternate route
• Summit Rd is closed between Gebbies Pass and Rapaki Track
• Old Tai Tapu Rd is closed between Osterholts Rd and Early Valley Rd
• Early Valley Rd is closed
• Holmes Rd is closed.

Power

Orion remains on full alert, with the rapidly changing fire posing a threat to power supply to the Port Hills and the greater city.

Health Advice

People have been told to stay indoors to avoid smoke inhalation.

Dr Alistair Humphrey, Canterbury Medical Officer of Health has advised that anyone suffering respiratory issues contact their GP.

"For the vast majority of people, the smoke will be unpleasant, but carries no risk to their health. However, smoke may irritate the eyes, nose, throat and airways. More serious symptoms include runny or sore eyes, dry or sore throat, sore nose, cough, tightness of the chest or difficulty breathing.

The wild fires raging through the Port Hills of Christchurch as seen from a flight from Dunedin to Auckland. Photo / Michael Hodgson
The wild fires raging through the Port Hills of Christchurch as seen from a flight from Dunedin to Auckland. Photo / Michael Hodgson

"In healthy people, most symptoms disappear soon after exposure to smoke ends and do not cause long-term health problems."

Cigarette smokers, the elderly, children and those with heart disease, asthma or other lung disease are at greatest risk of harm from smoke inhalation.

"Avoid exposure where possible by staying indoors and closing windows and doors," he says.

READ MORE
Christchurch fires: What you need to know
Defence force steps up help for Chch fires

Port Hills wildfires: Adventure park damaged


State of emergency declared

A state of emergency was declared in Christchurch and Selwyn yesterday afternoon.

Mayors Lianne Dalziel and Sam Broughton made a joint decision in relation to the Port Hills fire.

This came after up to 300 residents were evacuated this afternoon after a worrying shift in wind direction.


"It is no longer just a significant rural fire on the boundary of the city. It is now a city issue with suburbs being evacuated."

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said a city response was also required to ensure the safety and welfare of residents.

"Christchurch needs a multi-agency response given the seriousness of the situation. We need to be able to draw on all the resources possible to give our residents confidence in the ongoing response."

Selwyn District Mayor Sam Broughton said they acknowledged the "huge response effort" to so far.

"However this declaration recognises the seriousness of the situation, and this will allow us to provide all the assistance necessary to respond to the unfolding situation.

"The district and the city must work together to manage the situation and address the different challenges the fire is creating in each area."

Photo / CCC Newsline
Photo / CCC Newsline

Prime Minister Bill English told reporters at Parliament the development with the fires was concerning and it was a challenging situation.

"The Defence Forces are on standby to see what resources they could add but it does seem to be getting disturbingly close to houses and you've got some reasonably significant evacuations going on."

"We need to mobilise all the resources that are required to get that fire under control."

English said he was briefed by Brownlee after English's meeting with the Pike River families.

He was told that evacuations were underway to several marae and the Defence Force was on standby.

Photo / CCC Newsline
Photo / CCC Newsline

Winds in Christchurch over the last three days have fanned the wild bush fires from the north-west and south-west but early this afternoon shifted to north-east winds.

The wind shift pushed the blaze into new unburnt vegetation, Marshall said.

The worst-hit area was Worsley Spur, which at the time he admitted was "a setback".

Houses were evacuated in the area. A large number of houses on the upper reaches of the suburb of Westmoreland were evacuated as firefighters rushed to contain it.

"It's not contained, it's running. I wouldn't say it's out of control because we do have resources working on it but it is heavy material and once it's burning it is hard to stop," he said.

Houses on Kennedys Bush Rd and its intersecting streets were also being evacuated - from Halswell Quarry up towards the end of Kennedys Bush Rd.

"Residents should leave their homes immediately and head to the Pioneer Recreation Centre for further information," a police statement said at 5.15pm.

"We thank residents for co-operating with emergency services at this time"

Fourteen helicopters with monsoon buckets earlier dropping water on the worst areas.

Two fixed-wing aircraft dropped retardant to block the fires from spreading, but Marshall said stocks of retardant were running low in New Zealand and more would need to be rushed into the country.

In the Early Valley area, where one house was lost earlier in the fires, it had now been contained.

Governors Bay which saw more than 100 residents evacuated on Tuesday night, was now under control, with a containment line being made by heavy machinery.

"Our priorities again are life which is obviously critical and dwelling protection is key," he said.

Christchurch Adventure Park was evacuated earlier today.

Vegetation on its southern side may have been lost, Douglas feared, but the chairlift had not been damaged.

The hills and gullies were making it difficult for firefighting, and meant a lot of it needed to be done from the air.

Police were assisting the Fire Service with evacuations of Worsley Rd and intersecting streets due to a "concerning wind shift".

Worsley Rd was closed from Cashmere Rd, and police said residents may be permitted access but would need to report to police at the cordons.

The intersections in Christchurch affected by the earlier power outage were now all functioning properly again.

Photo / CCC Newsline
Photo / CCC Newsline

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Christchurch Transport Operations Centre said emergency services were "working hard to contain these fires and coming up against many challenges".

"We are pleading with the public not to rubberneck in the immediate area of the Port Hills fires to get photos and videos. Residents affected in the area are struggling to access their properties easily and residents who are affected by road closures need to have ready access if needed."

The Christchurch Civil Defence Emergency Operations Centre was reactivated late this afternoon to help with further evacuations as the fires moved closer to properties.

The council is the lead agency for management and communication around the fire.
In a press released just before 6pm they said evacuated residents were being directed to various welfare centres.

Fire rages in the Adventure Park area of the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / CCC Newsline
Fire rages in the Adventure Park area of the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / CCC Newsline

Firefighters were at the Christchurch Adventure Park, but the fire had not yet reached the village.

People should stay away from the hills to allow emergency services easy access and allow swift evacuation.

"If people are worried about their safety they should to leave their homes. If widespread evacuation is needed, emergency services will inform residents directly."

'We've just been watching it go slowly'

Video

Families evacuated overnight as wildfires burned across Canterbury's Port Hills have spoken of their frustration and fear.

Governors Bay farmer Vaughan Jones was watching the fire burn through his partner's family farm this morning.

"It's just been burning since the middle of the night, since we got evacuated - and we've just been watching it go slowly," he said.

It has been tough to witness, he said.

A sleepless Jones was frustrated that the choppers were not dumping water on the fire at first light.

Scrub fires spread over the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Council
Scrub fires spread over the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Council

He said the Fire Service told him they thought helicopters would be there at 6am.

"We saw what they can do yesterday and they could get it under control quickly."

Instead of joining the more than 100 people who were evacuated overnight at a local school, Jones parked down the road and watched the fire.

All streets in Governors Bay were evacuated. People were initially taken to the local fire station but temporary accommodation has now been set up at Governors Bay School, which has been closed for the day because of the fire threat.

Local Wayne Parkhill noticed the fire becoming "very serious" about 11pm.

As the wind shifted or hit dry gorse it spread "quite fast", he said.

This morning as he watched the flames up the hill above his house, he had his bags packed and was ready to leave if necessary.

"We've accepted the fact that if it's going to go, it's going to go," Parkhill said.

Selwyn District Council spokesman Stephen Hill said 107 people living at the bay were forced to evacuate overnight and were now being cared for by civil defence volunteers.
Locals, families of firefighters, and the nearby cafe donated food and drinks for the stricken families.

Scrub fires spread over the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Council
Scrub fires spread over the Port Hills, Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Council

Frances Willems, supervisor of the community-led response by Civil Defence-trained volunteers, said most of the evacuees left the centre about 9am.

Willems said the mood was calm in the centre overnight, with people happy to chat through events.

"It's been an amazing response from the community," she said.

Fire behind the Governors Bay fire station. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Fire behind the Governors Bay fire station. Photo / Kurt Bayer

Residents evacuated from the Teddington/Ohinetahi/Allandale areas were allowed to return home at midday.

Governors Bay Volunteer Fire Brigade said they are happy to allow those people return home but they warned that helicopters are still operating in the area and fire crews may still be active on the roads so people need to be courteous and give way to trucks.

The Port Hills fires, on several fronts, looking across to Governors Bay. Photo / Kurt Bayer
The Port Hills fires, on several fronts, looking across to Governors Bay. Photo / Kurt Bayer

Choppers were earlier refilling 450-litre monsoon buckets from the saltwater harbour and dumping them on hot spots.

Flames flared up when striking trees, especially macrocarpa and gorse bush.

More than 120 fire fighters and support crew were battling the two raging fires.

A dozen helicopters and planes were also used to help the firefighting effort.

- NZ Herald

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