Christchurch Port Hills fire: Two admitted to hospital with smoke-related breathing problems
Three people have been admitted to Christchurch Hospital following the fire, as smoke continues to cause irritation around the city.
About 450 households had been evacuated and at least 11 homes destroyed in out-of-control fires threatening Christchurch which had been burning since Monday. Starting in Marleys Hills, the blazes quickly grew to cover about 1800 hectares on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the Christchurch District Health Board said a female firefighter was having trouble breathing when she was admitted for smoke inhalation.
But she was treated and was "fine", the spokeswoman said.
A nine-year-old boy was admitted with asthma "exacerbated by the smoke", while a man was admitted after injuring his ankle while evacuating.
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FIRES 'LOOK SUSPICIOUS' - PM
It's unclear what has caused the Port Hill fires in Christchurch but Prime Minister Bill English believes it "looks suspicious".
English visited the Christchurch command centre on Thursday, saying he was confident in the performance of officials and firefighters who were doing their best to control the blaze.
Asked whether he had been briefed about the cause of the fires, English suggested arson was a possibility.
"I've only had a very brief description of the fire starting in two places at about the same time, which to someone like me looks suspicious, but those investigations are underway."
Earlier on Thursday, Superintendent Lane Todd from Christchurch police said it was too early to say if any of the fires were deliberately lit.
A small team of investigators was working with the Fire Service to determine how they began, Todd said.
English downplayed Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee's stinging criticism of the emergency response to the Christchurch fires on Wednesday, saying "bureaucratic processes" could be dealt with later.
"Gerry's very experienced at this, he's done it for five or six years now, very regularly.
"He has a very clear opinion about it and that'll be worked into any review of the process."
'LIVES FIRST, HOUSES SECOND'
Helicopter pilots on Thursday afternoon continued to fight the fires near Christchurch, focussing on "lives first, houses second".
Fourteen helicopters were fighting the blaze alongside more than 130 firefighters, focusing on front in the northern area of the Port Hills.
They were joined by 26 rural fire crews made of more than 200 personnel, Fire Service staff from both Nelson and Timaru, and three fixed wing planes.
Christchurch Helicopters pilot Dougal Monk said five of the company's helicopters, and two military-grade Iroquois, were focused on "lives first, houses second" around the Worsley Spur area.
It was the largest fire many of his crew had seen and one they would be fighting for days to come, he said.
The efforts of ground crews meant there was less heat and smoke on Thursday, giving pilots greater opportunity to "attack the perimeter" and slow the fire's spread.
However it was too early to say whether the situation was improving.
"It's better than it was yesterday but at this time yesterday we thought it wasn't that bad. The afternoon is the critical time when the temperature and the wind go up."
Striking satellite images showed the size of the fires, with smoke extending well out to sea.
The Defence Force had sent more personnel and vehicles to help evacuate residents and fight the fires.
Lieutenant Colonel Rob Loftus said 35 army personnel from Burnham Military Camp were sent on Wednesday night to help police check on residents in affected areas and evacuate those from Westmorland and Dyers Pass Road on the outskirts of Christchurch.
"We are poised to provide additional assistance if required and have a number of capabilities on standby," he said.
"The immediate priority is to get the residents to safer ground."
HOMEOWNER'S NERVOUS WAIT
As the blazes grew, more stories emerged of rushed evacuations, loss - and also hope.
Evacuated as wildfires closed in, Tim Fournier was anxiously waiting to hear if he still had a house.
Fournier, a lawyer, and his family were evacuated on Wednesday night and their property was still within the cordoned-off area.
"I'm trying to get information. In these situations it always seems hard for the people actually affected to get information."
"I don't think my brain is playing tricks on me. I'm 99 per cent sure we're watching our house burn down. I can't believe it's just caught on fire after it survived the night."
"Our [house] looked all good, but we haven't seen any choppers all morning and it [the fire] has just started up again badly, it's unbelievable."
Civil Defence said at midday that 11 houses had been lost, and two sheds - four houses on Worsleys Rd, four on Hoon Hay Valley Rd, two houses and a shed on Early Valley Rd and one house and one shed on Burkes Bush Rd.
There had been much conflicting information given over the number, with eight houses believed lost earlier on Thursday and as many as 40 on Wednesday night.
'I WATCHED IT ALL UNFOLD'
Waiau St resident Jo Manuel said she watched the fire all night from her house.
Her street, off Worsleys Rd, had not been evacuated but she had a bag packed.
"I watched it all unfold."
The fire stopped at a ridge about 500 metres from her property but the most spectacular sights were from Sugarloaf, near Dyers Pass.
"It's devastating. I'm just so thankful for our community. Watching the helicopters leave was awful. I thought 'don't go we need you'."
Helicopter crews were stood down overnight as fighting the fires in the dark was too dangerous. They returned to the air at day break on Thursday.
LATE NIGHT DEPARTURE
Westmorland resident Jo Lord said police hammered on the door of her Petworth Place property just after midnight.
"We'd heard on the radio about 6pm that Westmorland was being evacuated but we didn't know where or when.
"We decided we would stay but arranged with a couple of friends who offered us space, but after midnight . . . we didn't feel like descending on them."
After seeing the setup at Te Hapua Halswell Centre, they chose to spend the night there, Lord said.
More homes around Christchurch's Port Hills were being evacuated on Thursday.
About 450 households had been evacuated around Victoria Park and Dyers Pass Rd, Worsleys Rd, Westmorland and Kennedys Bush, with hundreds of other residents choosing to self-evacuate, the council said.
Civil Defence said police were evacuating residents downhill of the Sign of the Takahe on Dyers Pass Rd as far down as, and including, Kiteroa Place and Pentre Tce.
Affected residents would be contacted directly by police, who had been knocking on doors.
An evacuation centre in southwest Christchurch would likely be open most of Thursday.
Welfare supervisor Julian Barrett said the Te Hapua Halswell Centre sheltered nine people overnight, and several others chose to sleep in the car park with their pets.
"They didn't want to leave their animals."
Social workers were at the centre on Thursday morning to help those in need.
"There are a couple of distressed people out there who've been evacuated."
DON'T WAIT - GET OUT: POLICE
If you're worried leave now - don't wait, police were telling residents.
"We understand it's hard for people to leave their homes but the fire can change direction and move incredibly quickly," Senior Sergeant Ash Tabb. "If you're worried, don't leave it too late - it's better to be safe than sorry."
Police urged the public to stay away from the bottom of the Port Hills to keep the roads clear for emergency services and enable swift evacuations.
About 128 homes remained without power in the Port Hills area as at 4pm on Thursday.
Lines company Orion said the city's power supply stood up well overnight, but lines in the fire-affected area remained off the grid.
Further outages were possible until the fires were fully extinguished.