North Canterbury fire evacuees can go home

Residents of North Canterbury's Waipara township have been told by Fire and Emergency they can return to their homes tonight but be prepared to evacuate again, if needed.

A 300ha vegetation fire in Canterbury's Waikari Valley jumped its containment line again this afternoon, but two helicopters and more than 50 firefighters worked to successfully to contain it once again, Fenz said. 

The fire broke out just after 8pm on Sunday and properties near Waipara were evacuated.

It's the second large fire to break out within a week in the region; crews were still working to extinguish a massive blaze on the Port Hills that started on Wednesday.

Civil Defence said about 10 people spent the night in the Waipara Memorial Hall, while others slept in caravans outside.

Incident Commander Des Irving. Image: RNZ
Incident Commander Des Irving. Image: RNZ
But while residents would be allowed to go back home, Incident Commander Des Irving said today that progress in extinguishing the fire completely was slow.

"This fire won't be out tomorrow. This fire could take a little bit longer before we've actually got it out."

He thanked those impacted residents for their continued patience.

"They've been amazing, we're really appreciative of the residents and their support and understanding. We acknowledge that this has been quite a stressful time for them and also managing their pets and their stock.

"It is never easy to leave your home at short notice like these people had to do last night, but safety is always the priority.

"We are pleased with the progress made today and have allowed residents to return home but remain vigilant and prepared for another evacuation."

The fire was subterranean so it was burning under the ground and therefore took longer to extinguish, he said. 

Fenz said due to high winds, only two helicopters with specialised equipment have been in operation today.

There have been no reported livestock losses, or any structures lost or damaged.

Irving said there had been a "a little bit of panic" at 11am when the fire jumped the containment line.

He acknowledged that firefighters had been "pretty busy" tackling the Waikari Valley fire, as well as the Port Hills blaze, but said they had enough resources.

"We're rotating our crews through where we can and we've actually got crews from the West Coast over today and we've brought other people in from around the country to support our operations.

"We certainly have enough resources, both human resources and appliances to manage this fire, the Port Hills fire and some in reserve in case we're required elsewhere."

Ground crews will monitor the fire through the night.

Waikari residents at a community meeting today. Photo: RNZ
Waikari residents at a community meeting today. Photo: RNZ
Hurunui District mayor Marie Black told RNZ's Midday Report a recent briefing by Fenz for evacuees revealed strong north-west winds had seen the fire "billow up a bit".

Black said crews were continuing with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to manage the blaze as best they could.  But because of the flare-up, evacuation orders will remain in place.

Recent dry weather had "exacerbated" the fire risk across the region and many residents were living on a knife edge because of the risk and danger it posed.

She was not aware of any resourcing issues given the two large blazes - but acknowledged the work of volunteer firefighters who were carrying a heavy burden to protect their community.

Fifteen crews were battling the fire last night. Photo: NZ Herald
Fifteen crews were battling the fire last night. Photo: NZ Herald

Evacuees saw flames coming down the hill

Evacuee Louise Smith was worried about her landlord's farm, but heard the stock had been moved to safety.

"At 3 o'clock this morning, my partner could see the flames coming down the hill and it was just really windy which was quite worrying for the firefighters and stuff and everyone helping."

Les Winslade said he was waiting to get home to check on his livestock. He has eight cows on a lifestyle block that he hopes have survived.

"It's a bit of a worry because way back in 1989, me and the wife had an experience where our house burnt down and we lost animals in the fire so it's a bit traumatic for us. It brought back scary memories."

Winslade said he was grateful for the work of the firefighters to get the blaze under control.

Sally Thompson. Photo: RNZ
Sally Thompson. Photo: RNZ
Sally Thompson said her son's friend sent him a video of the fire heading towards their home last night.

When she went outside, she said the north-west wind was blowing smoke straight towards them.

"Then as time went on, we got a phone call from one of the local fireman and he said: 'Oh, perhaps be prepared that you probably will be evacuated', and then just before midnight, we got a knock on the door from a policeman. We had readied a couple of bags and some precious photos and things and got them in four different vehicles with the farm dog.

"We managed to get the farm dog, but the cats didn't want to have a bar of it so they're still at home.

"I'm pretty sure they would run if it got as far as that. But it did come over the hill, over Mount Donald and hopefully they can contain it today, but the wind's not going to help especially if it's too windy for the helicopters to go up so that's not going to help at all either."

Thompson and her husband stayed in their car outside the Waipara Memorial Hall overnight where a community meeting for residents was held on Monday morning.

A helicopter prepares to take off to join firefighters battling the fire in Waikari Valley. Photo...
A helicopter prepares to take off to join firefighters battling the fire in Waikari Valley. Photo: NZ Herald

HUHANZ (Helping You Help Animals) offered a stock trailer and portable yards to those affected, but said MPI advice advice on evacuating livestock and animals here should be the first port of call. Residents were also posting offers of help on local Facebook pages, including loans of horse floats and paddock space, and crates for pets.

Most of the South Island is currently under fire restrictions, and the dry conditions meant some areas within the Hurunui District Council zone were already under level 4 water restrictions.

In January, Fenz warned the region was tinder dry, the fire risk was the worst it had been in years, and an incident control team was set up in South Canterbury as a pre-emptive measure.

But a cluster of wildfires have already caused destruction this year, including houses and a church destroyed in Loburn, and a number of homes threatened by a long series of fires along a railway line between Aylesbury and Darfield, west of Christchurch.

- additional reporting NZ Herald