Firefighters hope they are turning a corner in the battle to control the bushfire on Christchurch’s Port Hills, thanks to light rain which fell overnight and is expected to continue through the day and tomorrow.
“We feel a lot better at 4am today than we did at 4am yesterday,” Fire Service spokesman Riwai Grace said.
MetService forecaster Aidan Pyselman said the weather radar was showing small patches of drizzle in the area. “Hopefully it becomes a little bit more widespread as the morning wears on,” he said.
Civil Defence’s Christchurch controller John Mackie, who described the blaze as “beyond anything we’ve ever had to deal with”, said the drizzle had really helped.
“It’s not the rain we wanted but we’ve certainly got the high humidity and the ground is absolutely wet, so that was a good sign this morning.
On the fifth day of the firefighting effort, the focus would be containing the fire around its perimeter.
“It’s not the big flames we saw on Wednesday. We’ve got smoke and subterranean sorts of fires going on that we’re using thermal imaging to identify hot spots and deal with those.”
Fifteen tonnes of flame retardant would arrive from Australia this afternoon aboard a NZ Defence Force plane.
Mackie said it would be a great help to fire crews. “There are wetting agents that break down the surface tension of the water droplets so they’re much more effective … it makes a litre of water go a lot further than it might otherwise.
“We’ve never needed it in such quantities. This is an event that’s beyond anything we’ve ever had to deal with, especially on a city fringe.
“Two thousand hectares is quite a rarity and this is one out of the box. We’ve had a run of bad luck, that’s for sure,” he said, referencing the city’s disastrous earthquakes.
Mackie said Civil Defence was relying on people to follow media reports and social media for information about when they would be able to return to their homes.
“We should have a better handle on [timeframes for people being able to return home] closer toward the end of today.”
Criticism regarding the emergency response would be addressed later, Mackie said.
“We’re really focusing on getting this thing dealt with. The structures and the systems we currently have in place, they may not be ideal but there’s a lot of people working hard out there.
“Criticism doesn’t help engagement of those volunteers who have put in huge hours in the last four-five days and it’s not their day job.”
There had also been “a lot of speculation” on the cause of the fires, but “there’s nothing definite yet”.
Investigators had begun work to identify the cause, he said.
Police warned the situation was still extremely volatile, and if the fire changed direction, people may have to leave their properties at short notice.
Round-the-clock patrols were working in at-risk and evacuation areas, with help from the Defence Force and 15 US Coastguard personnel, who were visiting Lyttelton on their way from Antarctica to the United States.
Civil Defence says 11 homes have been destroyed. So far, 400 properties have been officially evacuated and it is estimated 125 homes remain without power.
Three people have been taken to Christchurch Hospital – two with smoke inhalation and the third with an injury suffered while evacuating. A helicopter pilot was killed when his aircraft crashed while fighting the fire on Monday.
Cordons will remain in place into Saturday, with a small number of evacuees staying at Te Hapua Welfare Centre. Two other evacuation centres, at Nga Hau E Wha Marae and in Selwyn, have closed.