Thursday 16 February 2017

NZ: Homes evacuated as Christchurch Port Hills fires rage out of control

Last line of Defence

As the Port Hills fires are fought from land and air, police warn they can change direction and move incredibly quickly - people should be ready to evacuate, and not go to the area to look or take photos

What you need to know:

Christchurch Homes have been destroyed by a raging fire which continued to burn overnight, jumping into Victoria Park and spreading to around 1850ha of land
At least 450 homes have been officially evacuated. Many others have self-evacuated
A state of civil emergency has been declared in Christchurch and Selwyn
If you are at all worried or uncomfortable remaining in your home, please evacuate
People are advised to stay away from the hills to allow emergency services access and ensure swift evacuation
Cashmere Primary is closed.

How did it start?

• The first fire — believed to have been caused by an electrical problem — began on Monday, along Early Valley Rd in Lansdowne. By 7pm, crews were battling a second blaze on Marley's Hill, south of the city. Authorities don't know how that blaze began, but believe it started in a car park off Summit Rd.

Evacuation Centres:

1. Halswell Library 2. Selwyn Events Centre in Lincoln 3. Te Hapua Halswell Centre, Halswell Rd 4. Nga Hau e Wha Marae, Pages Rd 5. There's also a Facebook page, Evacuation Housing, for evacuated residents to ask for help, and for people to offer temporary accommodation to those evacuated.

'That house that just caught fire ... that's our house"

16 February, 2017

A man who watched the Port Hills fire raze his family home this morning says he doesn't want to believe the devastation is real.

Henry Reese, 22, and his family were evacuated from the home his parents have lived in for 25 years about 3pm yesterday and saw their neighbours' home burn to the ground about 6pm.

When daylight broke this morning RNZ was there as Mr Reese watched the Worsleys Road house go up in flames at about 7.45am.

Henry Reese, centre, watches his family home burn to the groundHenry Reese, centre, watches his family home burn. Photo: RNZ / Joelle Daly

"That house that just caught fire about 10 mins ago is our house," he said. "It survived the night and then no choppers [were] up there in the morning and obviously a little fire started up and there was no-one there [to protect it]."

"Right now it looks like our house is getting destroyed. It's a bit of a shame, quite a big shame… It's quite a beautiful family house."

On the phone to his family, Mr Reese told them if they arrived quickly they would be able to see the last part of their house before the flames finished it off.

"It's still hard to believe. I barely trust myself that that's our house but it certainly looks that way. I don't want to believe it."

"Even when we were evacuated, we didn't think this would be the last time in this house. Can't believe it," he said.

More Christchurch homes were evacuated this morning as a huge fire burned on the Port Hills, and at least five helicopters with monsoon buckets were dispatched at first light.

The Port Hills fire near Christchurch Adventure Park.The Port Hills fire near Christchurch Adventure Park this morning. Photo: RNZ / Joelle Daly

A local state of emergency was declared by Christchurch City Council and Selwyn District Council yesterday evening.

Overnight, the two main fires merged into one large blaze in excess of 1850 hectares and was growing. Latest reports that it has now spread to the harbour side of Sugarloaf.

Police this morning evacuated homes downhill of the Sign of the Takahe on Dyers Pass Road.

Follow RNZ's live coverage here

Brian Ellwood, who lives on Dyers Pass Rd near the Sign of the Takahe, was told to leave home about 4.30am.

He and his wife put their two cats, three chickens and two children in their cars and parked up at a petrol station.

"All the important things, we got," he said.

Police inspector Derek Erasmus said the force of the fire overnight was frightening.

"Trees exploding, long lines of fire ... across hillsides. Looking at what the fire service were doing, an incredibly difficult and dangerous job for them."

He said 85 extra army and police staff were brought in overnight to help evacuate people.

Helicopters with monsoon buckets and ground crews are tackling a blaze close to a house at the top of Worsleys Road.Helicopters with monsoon buckets and ground crews are tackling a blaze close to a house at the top of Worsleys Road. Photo: RNZ / Joelle Daly

Governors Bay School and Cashmere Primary School are closed. Cashmere principal Gavin Burn said for families with a lot going on the decision was to create certainty, so they know where their children are.

About 100 houses are without electricity power this morning. Lines company Orion said the focus today was on ensuring the power supply to water pumping stations near the fire to keep the water pressure up.

Two major pylon circuits that cross the Port Hills are out but an underground loop cable commissioned in the last year is keeping up the power supply to the city, it said.

Christchurch civil defence controller Dave Adamson told Morning Report the weather forecast was not good for firefighting, with winds expected to develop this afternoon.

If there were shifts in wind direction other areas could be in the line of the fire.
About 450 houses have been evacuated with anything up to 1000 people having left their homes, he said. Parts of Cashmere Hills, Westmorland, Cracroft and Early Valley Road were evacuated last night.

Seven houses are believed to have been damaged by the fire since yesterday, on Early Valley Road and Worsley Road, civil defence said. That was an update to a civil defence report last night that three homes had been destroyed on Worsley Spur in addition to five confirmed destroyed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Flames leap close to a house in the Port Hills.Flames leap close to a house in the Port Hills. Photo: Supplied / Matthew Rankin

The Fire Service said a total of 15 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft will be used to fight the fire from the air today, and more than 200 firefighters will be on the ground.

A fire ban has been brought in from South Canterbury to Hurunui as resources are put towards tackling the Port Hills blaze.

Police on the scene as Port Hills fire continues to burn.Police on the scene as the fire burns and evacuations continue. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

PM, Civil Defence Minister, head to Christchurch

Prime Minister Bill English has cancelled his events today to fly to Christchurch.
Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, who heading to Christchurch, said the situation was "getting pretty serious".

"The requirement to get that fire out is even more pressing than at any point in the last couple of days."

Declaring a state of emergency had been "a little slow" but once it had been done, the civil defence response was okay, he told Morning Report. Firefighters and others are doing great work in dangerous conditions.

"The people out there fighting the fire are very brave people."

Mr Brownlee is expected to meet the mayors of Selwyn and Christchurch this morning and be briefed on the emergency response.

A fire engine speeds through Christchurch as smoke billows from the Port Hills fire.A fire engine speeds through Christchurch as smoke billows from the Port Hills fire. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Paul Harding Brown and his wife Deborah left their Kennedys Bush Road house twice - first on Monday night and again last night - and were waiting at the bottom of the road to be allowed back home.

The fire on Monday night was one hill over from their home. Last night it was 200-300m from the end of the road.

Mr Harding Brown couldn't see his house from where he was waiting this morning. "We just have to wait it out and see what happens."

'It's just gone ballistic'

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck, who was in the air for over 14 hours yesterday, said the conditions were terrible.

"It's just gone ballistic - we're losing house after house," Mr Beck said.
"It really is a controlled disaster at the moment."

There were enough air and ground resources to fight the fire, but crews were struggling to get enough water.

"Down on the flat there's water everywhere but it's not deep enough," he said.

"We're robbing all the swimming pools we can... It's quite a desperate situation here."
Aerial crews stood down at about 8.30pm last night, after smoke and dark made it too dangerous to continue.

Mr Beck said the terrain also made for difficult flying.

"There's transmission wires, power wires, the gondola - we've been working in a nightmare of wires up here so it's been one hell of a job."

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