Thursday 21 September 2017

State of emergency declared in New Zealand as hundreds forced to evacuate homes due to wildfires

A helicopter dumps fire retardant on wildfires near Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island Credit: Reuters
A helicopter dumps fire retardant on wildfires near Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island Credit: Reuters
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Firefighters in New Zealand's second-largest city were able to halt a wildfire's advance on suburban homes Thursday after it burned down 11 houses in the hill suburbs and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.

Civil defence officials declared a state of emergency in the South Island city late last night as two blazes that had been smouldering for days merged into a single giant fire-front.

John Mackie, the civil defense controller for Christchurch, said about 130 firefighters on the ground assisted by more than a dozen helicopters had stopped the fire from encroaching further into the city.

He said the plan was to let it burn itself out, and that a forecast of rain over the weekend would help.

He said the fire was spread over about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in Christchurch's Port Hills.

A helicopter pilot who was a decorated soldier died in a crash while fighting the blaze earlier this week.

Christchurch City and adjacent Selwyn District declared a state of emergency Wednesday. Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton said changing winds had made the fire unpredictable.

He said the region had been unusually dry for three years and the grass in the hills had turned brown over the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Police ordered the evacuation of about 400 homes while many others nearby were choosing to leave. Broughton said displaced residents were staying at evacuation centers or with relatives.

"They need to look after one another, and make sure they have a place to go," he said.

Phil Claude told Radio New Zealand he and his family ran down a grass track to escape the fire, which destroyed their home.

"I could see that the smoke and the flames were being blown right up toward our house," he said. "And I just yelled 'Get out. Get out!'"

A new mountain bike park, the Christchurch Adventure Park, was threatened by the fire.

New Zealand's military was providing water tankers and engineering equipment as well as firefighters and other personnel.

The helicopter pilot who died while fighting the fire, Cpl. David Steven Askin, won one of the country's top awards for bravery for his actions in Afghanistan.

Askin was a member of the elite Special Air Service and his identity was kept secret when he won the Gallantry Star medal in 2014. He was cited for efforts that included helping save guests during the 2011 siege of the luxury Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul that left at least 20 people dead.

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