Don’t be fooled, the Christchurch bushfires are not over yet, says the helicopter pilot in charge of battling the week-long blaze that has left Christchurch’s Port Hills burnt and blackened.
Alan Beck, who has 45 years experience, said flying conditions were extremely bad with poor visibility and severe downdrafts making accurate firefighting a challenge for pilots.
More than 300 firefighters have stood in the way of the flames on steep slopes. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have battled the blaze with monsoon buckets and fire retardant, which stopped the fire in its tracks in some places.
About 450 houses have been evacuated and at least 11 homes destroyed in the fires, which started burning on February 13.
Beck said colleagues of the late pilot Steve Askin had not had time to grieve for their comrade, who died when his helicopter crashed while he was fighting the blaze on Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s his funeral [today] – we’ll try to get to it, but we know his family will understand if we’re needed on the job.”
Beck said the fire was now under control but the job was not finished.
“People look at everything blackened, with no smoke and they think it’s all over – it’s not.”
Incident controller Richard McNamara said there was still “a lot of heat” in the blaze, which was contained to a 30km area.
As of this morning the fire had burnt through 2075ha.
“We could get flare-ups in areas like Dyers Pass, where there are forestry areas nearby that could fuel a fire,” McNamara said.
“The fire is hiding in among that forest and if that gets up and runs again, with those heavy fuels, it can go from whoa to go in minutes.”
Thermal images taken of the area indicated hot-spots were burning at 300-400C.
McNamara said up to 150 firefighters would monitor for the threat of flare-ups for at least another week.
Heavy machinery will be used to create further containment lines around the fire, while fixed-wing aircraft will drop more retardant to create “a secure fence between the fire and residential property”.
“We have been lucky with the northeasterly wind coming in and cooler temperatures, but the forecast is for temperatures to start going up, cloud to burn off, and a bit of westerly [wind] later in the week,” McNamara said.
“They are all fire conditions to get the fire cranking again … if we don’t have those control lines in place the risk is always that it is going to break.”
For homeowners, there’s been frustration as they try to see what has happened to their homes, pets and possessions.
Some residents were allowed access for two hours from 10am yesterday.
While everyone praised the firefighting efforts that had saved many of their homes, they had only criticism for the complete lack of communication and misinformation.
One resident shook his head at the news that resident registration had closed at 2am. “Some of us like to sleep,” another called out. There was further confusion at the briefing, with one official saying they had to be out by 11am, and another saying 12pm.
Many had not been allowed home since Tuesday or Wednesday. Stubble had reached full beard, with the razors still in the bathroom. Some were still in the same stinky clothes. Some had “blackmailed” their way through, pleading the need to feed elderly cats.
Several locals said they had been reduced to trawling through photos on news websites to try to work out whether their home was damaged.
While Civil Defence has said four houses were destroyed in these areas, no one knew which they were. “The hardest thing has been not knowing,” said one resident.
“That’s not a big number,” said resident Chris Millar. “Surely that is manageable in terms of communication – then people can rest easy. Nobody has really stepped up and owned the responsibility for making sure that happens.”
Residents worried that yesterday’s limited access meant they would not be allowed back permanently for some time.