The sound of the helicopters was constant over the Port Hills in Christchurch yesterday as desperate fire crews continued to battle the deadly blaze.

The blades chugging through the air, the orange buckets full of much-needed water dangling beneath them as they went back and forth across the skyline hour after hour.

Now spanning more than 2075 hectares, the fire appeared less fierce, but the efforts to douse it did not diminish.

It has claimed one life - helicopter pilot Steve Askin - and resulted in two people being treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and a third for an evacuation injury.


The blaze has destroyed at least 11 houses, forced the evacuation of 1000 people from about 450 homes and has been fought long and hard by more than 130 firefighters on the ground - 40 crews with 45 pumps and tankers and 26 rural fire crews - 14 helicopters and three planes. And still, it burns.

The Port Hills fire was made up of two blazes, the first igniting on Monday along Early Valley Rd In Lansdowne, followed by a second in a car park off Summit Rd at Marley Hill. Yesterday it merged into one.

Thick plumes of smoke billowed out of the tinder-dry pine trees that dress the hills, rolling in waves across the landscape.

Residents and onlookers flocked to Bengal Drive in Cashmere, a cul-de-sac with the best publicly accessible view of the fire and efforts to put it out. The street winds uphill and at the top, there was a clear view of the main fire.

Several nervous evacuees asked the Herald to take photos of their properties using a zoom lens in a desperate bid to see what - if anything - was still standing on their land. They said they had been given no indication about when they could return home and survey the damage.

Authorities said last night that exactly how many properties had been damaged by the smoke, heat and flames, would not be known until the "emergency had ended".

The chopper pilots downed tools as night fell last night, unable to fly in the dark, but crews of firefighters, including many volunteers, worked through the night to try to reclaim the Port Hills.

They may be helped today, with weather forecasters predicting occasional drizzle.

The exact cause of the inferno is yet to be determined.

But Prime Minister Bill English, after visiting the fire command unit in Christchurch yesterday, announced he had been given a brief description that two fires had started at the same time.

"Which to someone like me looks suspicious, but again, those investigations are under way," he said.

English said he had been told the high danger of yesterday had eased and the fire was contained, but not controlled.

Affected residents told the Herald they were angry at the length of time it took to declare a state of emergency - with some saying fire crews had missed "golden opportunities".

Helicopter pilot Steve Askin lost his life fighting the Port Hills fires. Photo / Supplied
Helicopter pilot Steve Askin lost his life fighting the Port Hills fires. Photo / Supplied

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel and Selwyn mayor Sam Broughton have defended their handling of the fire after Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee criticised how long it took to declare a state of emergency.

English said he did not want to get into a debate on "that process stuff".

"I don't think the average Kiwi is going to be looking at whether the bureaucratic process was as precise as it should have been," he said. "They're going to be looking at the efforts of these pilots of these aircraft, who are taking real risks."

Tragically, the risks Askin, 37, took had a deadly ending. His family, including wife, Elizabeth and children aged 7 and 4, will farewell him in a service on Monday. A Givealittle page has been set up to help. He was awarded the NZ Gallantry Star for his efforts fighting for the SAS in Afghanistan. As of last night donations had topped $96,000.

Support for Christchurch also came in the form of a Facebook campaign, with users changing their profile picture to a an orange heart on a black background. Additional reporting: Corazon Miller