A firefighter battling the Tasman blaze was hospitalised with dehydration but is out of danger, authorities said today.

Jim Frater, Civil Defence controller, gave the latest update this afternoon on the fire and said that Pigeon Valley residents were allowed to visit their homes for two hours.

Frater said about 500 people from about 200 properties remain evacuated.

The ban of farm machinery use continues, he said, and it was "sobering" that only one spark lit the fires.

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Trevor Mitchell, fire controller for Fire and Emergency, said it's been another good day but the fire remains uncontained.

Conditions remain that sparks will easily ignited, he said.

The weather was going to get progressively warmer before a southerly at the end of the week.

Tasman acting area commander Zane Hooper said there will continue to be an increased police presence.

The Wakefield police station will be staffed 24 hours until February 15.

Then it will return to normal hours.

Red Cross and police will be visiting all Wakefield properties tonight to provide reassurance.

Tasman mayor Richard Kempthorne said he was sure Wakefield residents would be delighted to be home.

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But they'll still be feeling stressed, he said.

"So look after each other," Kempthorne said.

"I believe I represent everybody that's been evacuated in thanking those helping. It's been a mammoth effort," he said.

EARLIER

The fight against the unprecedented Tasman bush fires has moved underground, with the squadron of helicopters' aerial attack scaled back, leaving firefighters on the frontline, possibly for months.

Fire bosses say around 85 firefighters made good progress against the 2000–hectare fire, as the massive fire-fighting operation entered its seventh day.

Last night, four drones hovered over the fire, about 30km south of Nelson, with infra-red technology detecting "quite a lot" of hot spots.

Firefighters are using hand tools, shovels, and hoses, along with bulldozers and excavators to tackle the fire, which is burning deep under the dry ground.

Once the hot spots have been churned up, the fire crews are dousing the area with water – and going back hours later to check it's extinguished.

The process will take weeks, if not months, Trevor Mitchell, Fire and Emergency New Zealand fire controller said today.

He accepted it's going to be a "long haul" for his people and the local communities.

The forecast today is for changeable winds blowing from several directions but Mitchell said it looks like "another good day on the hill for our folk".

There are around 190-200 firefighters on the ground, Mitchell said, now working to four-day rotations.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand was lucky to have around 12,000 volunteers across the country, he said, with everyone stepping up and wanting to help.

Civil Defence controller Jim Frater said getting Wakefield residents home last night had gone well.

But he stressed it was a conditional return and reminded people to stay ready to leave if fire conditions change.

"No way are we out of danger just yet," he said.

Today authorities are looking to see if there can be a "conditional return" for residents of the valley areas.

They are currently only able to get in for short-term access for a few hours a day.

The decision will be made later today.

There are also ongoing discussions ongoing to see whether the formal Civil Defence state of emergency should be continued.

There are now 600 people involved in fighting the blaze and managing the response.

The fire threat could last for "weeks if not months", Frater said.

"Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not real."

One week of fighting the fires

It was almost a full week since a spark flickered to flame and then all out fire last Tuesday, racing up a tinder dry Pigeon Valley hill, 30km south of Nelson, and then much, much further.

By the following Monday, yesterday, New Zealand's largest forest fire since 1955 had blackened 2300 hectares of earth and still maintained a perimeter of 25km.

It had taken one home, forced around 3000 from others across a handful of valleys and in the Waimea Plains settlement of Wakefield, and was the focus of thousands of hours of collective toil by 150 firefighters from the far north to the deep south, the pilots of 23 helicopters, and countless others both paid and not.

All the while Civil Defence controller Roger Ball and Fire and Emergency incident controller John Sutton came out twice a day to update the public of the endless graft to gain the upper hand on fires that scorched earth within 2km of Wakefield, population 3000, and within metres of some more rural homes.

FENZ incident controller John Sutton, flanked by area commander Grant Haywood, left, and Tasman mayor Richard Kempthorne, during a media briefing at Appleby School. Photo / Mark Mitchell
FENZ incident controller John Sutton, flanked by area commander Grant Haywood, left, and Tasman mayor Richard Kempthorne, during a media briefing at Appleby School. Photo / Mark Mitchell

And as they again told Wakefield residents that it just wasn't yet safe to go home, the community did its best to step up with free accommodation, donated food in bellies and, when needed, arms around shoulders.

But then, yesterday.

The expected high winds of the day before hadn't eventuated, firefighters had had two really good days and yes, you can go home, Sutton, via media, told the 860 Wakefield households displaced by the forest fires. Around 400 in valley areas face a longer wait.

"I've got the feeling that we're starting to turn the corner," he said, although he quickly added firefighters would likely still be putting out the blaze in March and the bone-dry Tasman district's fire risk remained so high forestry harvesting and the use of farm machinery are still banned.

Zane Hooper, the acting district commander for police, also sounded a warning, this time to rubberneckers with a sudden desire to visit blink-and-you-miss-it Wakefield.

For now, don't, he said.

Residents of the tiny settlement still have to be ready to evacuate again, if needed, with the fire risk still extreme.

Rural firefighters in action on the fringes of the Tasman bush fires at Teapot Valley. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Rural firefighters in action on the fringes of the Tasman bush fires at Teapot Valley. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But come 5pm yesterday, the community scattered by the threat of destruction began to come together again.

And so, when Ball and Sutton and Hooper and the politicians stopped talking just after 4pm yesterday, their good news beamed live around the country, something new happened: Tasman District Council staff watching the announcements from the back of the press conference were clapping.

Their applause spoke for so many.

What a week.

It was 2.13pm on Tuesday last week when dad-of-two Joel Scott spotted flames in a paddock being tended to by a contractor for a farmer.

"It was only the size of a barbecue fire," he said.

Less than a minute later, the flames were racing up a hill and Scott was screaming to the 111 operator, "Your ground staff are going to be useless, just get the helicopters under way".

Helicopters fight the blaze that started above Nelson city. Photo / Tim Cuff
Helicopters fight the blaze that started above Nelson city. Photo / Tim Cuff

The fire grew throughout Waitangi Day - when four firefighting crews and three aircraft were pulled away to put out a suspicious 10ha fire at nearby Rabbit Island - and the following day, Thursday, was particularly hairy.

Sixty sheep rescued from Redwood Valley later had to be put down because of their injuries, and MPI and SPCA staff - who through the week have been escorted onto properties where possible to feed and water stranded livestock - set trapped pigs free from a flaming pen before escaping the inferno themselves.

Hundreds of animals - from birds to chickens to cats and dogs - were also being cared for at the Richmond Showgrounds by MPI, SPCA and animal charity HUHA.

The disaster became more serious on Friday, when Wakefield residents were told to leave their homes, and the fire nightmare continued with evacuations after another suspicious fire, this time at Walters Bluff in Nelson, again diverted resources from the main fire.

The Walters Bluff fire was later extinguished with only a balcony lost, but the main fire continued to grow.

At last count it covered an area equivalent to 2300 rugby fields, no surprise to the man who first alerted authorities.

"I knew in the first two minutes that it was out of control", Scott said.

New Zealand Defence Force Fire Fighters held to combat the Richmond fire near nelson. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Defence Force Fire Fighters held to combat the Richmond fire near nelson. Photo / Supplied

Yesterday, as the three-day evacuation order for Wakefield came to an end, a rattled Scott was still preparing himself - he lives 8km south of Wakefield at Belgrove - for the worst.

He's moved horses and cows off his property and was ready to go if the fire again took a turn for the worse.

It's different when you've seen how fast a fire can move.

"It still seems unreal. You couldn't do anything."

Scott had a holiday planned this week, and he went, but then came home early.

Those fires, they've disrupted so many lives, so many plans. But they've also brought out the best.


As firefighters and chopper pilots fought to gain control of the fire - they're not there yet, but there is a containment line right around the perimeter, Sutton said yesterday - the country has formed its own containment line behind both them and those worst affected by the disaster.

New Zealand Defence Force fire fighters held to combat the Richmond fire near Nelson. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Defence Force fire fighters held to combat the Richmond fire near Nelson. Photo / Supplied

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced during a visit to the region on Thursday that a mayoral relief fund had started with a $20,000 kickstart from the Government, along with other support already on offer from various ministries. Donations can be made via the Tasman District Council website www.tasman.govt.nz

Meanwhile, local businesses donated meals, church groups held day-long cook-offs and ordinary residents have filled trolleys with groceries for those most in need. Others offered beds and even entire homes to those without a roof over their heads as the fires raged.

The efforts of the volunteers was on full display at the Nelson Suburbs Football clubrooms in Stoke, where donated loo rolls were stacked almost to the ceiling in the men's changing room and mini-supermarket of free items for evacuees took over the bar room.

Volunteer organiser Janine Thompson, working up to 14 hours a day on five hours' sleep and hugging the sometimes tearful arrivals, personified the efforts of many when she pushed past fatigue to do her bit.

Volunteers Anna Perry-Smith, left, and Janine Thompson in their temporary supermarket of donated goods for fire evacuees at the Nelson Suburbs football club. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Volunteers Anna Perry-Smith, left, and Janine Thompson in their temporary supermarket of donated goods for fire evacuees at the Nelson Suburbs football club. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"This is something I can do. This is how I can contribute."

Wakefield evacuee Terry Coleman was also pushing through the hard times when the fire was at its worst and he was forced to park his caravan-turned-temporary home in an Aniseed Valley paddock, and face the fear that he might not have a home to return to.

In the heat of the day, Coleman sheltered under his awning and looked at the smoke-hazed Waimea Plains. At night, he took comfort in looking toward that other great unknown.

Wakefield evacuee Terry Coleman, with dogs Bella, left, and Kobe, at his temporary camp in a paddock near Nelson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Wakefield evacuee Terry Coleman, with dogs Bella, left, and Kobe, at his temporary camp in a paddock near Nelson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I just sit around and gaze at the stars. What can you do?"

But, as Coleman watched and Thompson hugged and Scott came home early from holiday, and even as more residents - this time in Wai-iti, south of Wakefield, were told on Saturday to prepare for possible evacuation - the hard, dirty, unglamourous slog of
the firefighters was giving hope.

And still, the fight goes on.

Robin Thompson, deputy principal fire officer from the Nelson Tasman District.
Robin Thompson, deputy principal fire officer from the Nelson Tasman District.

Another fire controller, Trevor Mitchell, said late yesterday afternoon fire crews are now working on strengthening the containment lines, checking forecasts and identifying pressure points.

Today had been "a bit breezy", but they were doing okay, Mitchell said.

"Things are looking reasonably comfortable."

The last few days fire controllers like Sutton, and Mitchell, have remained careful with their language, but their growing confidence in the battle against this devastating blaze has also been hard to miss.

Long may it continue.