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A helicopter works to extinguish the fire at the Port Hills on February 14 (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)
A helicopter works to extinguish the fire at the Port Hills on February 14 (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)

SocietyFebruary 15, 2024

Everything you need to know about the Port Hills fire 

A helicopter works to extinguish the fire at the Port Hills on February 14 (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)
A helicopter works to extinguish the fire at the Port Hills on February 14 (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)

A State of Local Emergency was declared in Christchurch last night after a large vegetation fire broke out in the Port Hills, almost seven years to the day since another devastating blaze in the area.

What happened?

A local state of emergency has been declared for Christchurch City, including Banks Peninsula and Selwyn District, after a large wildfire broke out yesterday afternoon on the Port Hills. 

“The declaration means we are better able to coordinate our response across all the various agencies involved, and will mean we can get assistance to where it’s most needed,” Christchurch mayor Phil Mauger said. “It also means the local controller can evacuate people or restrict access to affected areas as required.”

What’s the latest?

As of this morning, the fire was covering at least 630 hectares of land, and has not yet been contained. However, there had not been any major flare-ups overnight. Eighty homes have been evacuated from Early Valley, Worsley Spur, Hoon Hay Valley and Kennedys Bush, while another 30 homes were evacuated in Selwyn.

Fire and Emergency said it had 23 appliances, 15 helicopters and two fixed wing aircrafts involved in the operation today, with the focus now on “strengthening containment lines and continuing with structure protection”.

The fire continued to burn overnight (Photo by Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

People are asked to stay away from the area to ensure emergency services “are not delayed in moving in and out of the area”. Last night, a statement from FENZ noted that onlookers had caused some key roads near the blaze to be congested, potentially impacting the evacuation of locals.

Christchurch’s Adventure Park has been affected by the Port Hills fires, reported the Herald, but it’s not yet known the extent of the damage. ”We’re completely devastated by it, especially after it’s only been a few years since the last one,” said the park’s director John McVicar. “We don’t have enough information really to have a good assessment of what’s happened.”

Where can you evacuate to?

Two centres have been set up for those who have been instructed to evacuate their homes. The first is at Te Hāpua Library and Community Centre, 341 Halswell Road and the other is at the Lincoln Community Centre, 24 Gerald Street for those who live closer to Lincoln. 

For evacuees who need help with any issues at the properties they have left, such as livestock, pets, or medications left behind, a recovery hub has been set up at the bottom of Worsleys Road in the Christchurch suburb of Cracroft.

For those worried about their animals, SPCA Canterbury is offering emergency boarding, food and general supplies to anyone affected by the Port Hills fires. You can reach them on their Facebook page or ring 03 3497057.

What should everyone else in Ōtautahi do? 

Te Whatu Ora issued a warning about the smoke from the fire last night, advising that people who are sensitive to smoke – such as those with heart or lung conditions, people who are pregnant, young children and the elderly – may experience coughing, shortness of breath or eye, nose and throat irritation. 

Dr Matt Reid, medical officer of health for the National Public Health Service said exposure to smoke can worsen pre-existing health conditions such as heart and lung disease. “People affected by the smoke should close windows and doors and reduce outdoor exercise”.

For everyone else, stay away from Cracroft, Kennedys Bush, Early Valley and surrounding areas of the fire. This morning police reprimanded “disaster tourists” for impeding the road access of fire and emergency crew and earth moving equipment. “They are making it very hard for all those involved in the firefighting,” said inspector Ash Tabb. 

Civil Defence reminded people that if “life, health or property” was in danger, to contact 111 immediately. 

What caused the fire? 

The cause is still being investigated, but the initial report of a fire on Worsley’s Track was received by police at about 2.15pm on Wednesday. The public is being asked to send in any photos and footage of the Port Hills taken between 1.45pm and 2.45pm yesterday afternoon to with your name, contact details, exact time the image was taken and where you were.

The view of the smoke from Lyttelton (Image: Kiran Dass)

How has the weather contributed?

According to Dr Nicola Day, a plant and fungal ecologist from Victoria University, the “tinder dry conditions” at the moment can fuel wildfires. “February, the end of summer, is when the vegetation is at its driest so that’s providing good fuel for a wildfire,” she told the Science Media Centre. A second grass fire in the Selwyn district was reported shortly before 9am today.

Dr Nathanael Melia from Climate Prescience said that while ongoing drought conditions provided the backdrop to yesterday’s fire, the real culprit was extremely dry and gusty conditions. 

“These conditions resulted in immense difficulty in containing the fire as it spread fast up the steep Port Hills and was often able to leapfrog ahead, starting new fires in a phenomenon known as ‘spotting’,” he said in comments to the Science Media Centre. “This extreme fire behaviour makes fighting at the main fire front far too dangerous as ground crews can become rapidly surrounded.”

And what could today’s weather mean?

While those gusty conditions have settled, the battle isn’t over yet. At the moment, the direction of the wind means that the large smoke plume is blowing offshore, according to Niwa, but this could change later today. The smoke can also be seen from space.

MetService meteorologist David Miller said it could hit a scorching 28 degrees in the region today, which coupled with gusty north-westerly winds may make it trickier to quickly contain the blaze. 

This summer was a “big El Niño season”, added Melia, which contrasted with the stormy weather seen at the start of last year. “The 2024 local conditions in Canterbury in late summer are conducive to wildfire development. The meteorological conditions on Valentine’s afternoon in the Christchurch Port Hills area were ‘Very-high’ to ‘Extreme’ and only deteriorated post-ignition as the afternoon fight began.”

What’s the vibe like in the community? 

Smoke from the fire has been visible in many parts of Christchurch, including Lyttelton and Diamond Harbour overnight. In the south Christchurch suburb of Spreydon, a large plume of smoke engulfing the hills has appeared to remain the same size overnight, with multiple helicopters seen in the air at 7am. Here is a side by side of the smoke as seen from Spreydon Domain from last night and this morning.

Christchurch dog Maggie watches the smoke from Spreydon Domain at 6.30pm last night (L) and 8.30am today (R) (Image: Alex Casey)

People in online community groups are offering up support to those who need it, with many drawing parallels to the 2017 Port Hill fires. When asked about dropping off food and supplies to the emergency personnel, Canterbury Fire and Emergency responded on Facebook with this: “We do have catering organised for our crews and everyone working on the fire, but if you would like to drop off something then the best place would be the evacuation centre in Halswell.” 

The fire is bringing back memories for some of 2017

It’s seven years to the week that another devastating fire broke out on the Port Hills.

As 1News reported, a Worsley Road couple that lost their house in the 2017 fire had only moved back into their home five weeks ago after rebuilding in the area. They were asked to evacuate last night. “I’m hurting, I’m disappointed, my wife is shaken, and we’ve been told to keep an eye on the civil defence website for updates,” said Doug Pflaum. “But I’m optimistic that we will get back into our home tomorrow.”

The 2017 fire claimed the life of a firefighter and took almost 10 weeks – 66 days – to be fully extinguished. The official cause of that fire remains unknown, though it was believed to be deliberately lit.

Where can I find more information?

From the local Civil Defence page in Canterbury or from Fire and Emergency. The Christchurch City Council and Selwyn District Council are also providing updates for concerned residents.

Keep going!