Christchurch Port Hills fire: Cordons lift, more than 1400 fire evacuees able to return to check their homes
More than 1400 evacuees are now allowed to return home as cordons are slowly lifted in fire-affected areas of the Port Hills.
About 450 households were evacuated and at least 11 homes destroyed in out-of-control fires threatening Christchurch which have been burning since Monday.
Starting in Marleys Hills, the blazes grew to cover 1800 hectares of land by Friday morning, Christchurch Civil Defence said.
The cause of the fires remains a mystery, but there is nothing to indicate they were deliberately lit, according to Canterbury's top police officer.
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Prime Minister Bill English and independent fire investigator Ken Legat had both suggested the fire was suspicious, but Canterbury district commander Superintendent John Price said that would be a "quantum leap".
"Police and the New Zealand Fire Service, as well as rural fire, are jointly working together on what the causation of the fires are," Price said.
"Just like any fire, we are working together to determine the cause, but it is definitely not suspicious at this stage," Price said, an opinion backed up by fellow police officers Superintendent Lane Todd and Detective Inspector Greg Murton.
The Summit Road fire was reported about 90 minutes after the Early Valley Road fire, Murton said.
CORDONS LIFTED FOR 1400
The cordons at the corner of Early Valley Road and Old Tai Tapu Road and at the corner of Osterholts Road and Old Tai Tapu Road was lifted on Friday afternoon.
Much of Westmorland has now reopened and with the earlier lifting of the cordon at the corner of Cashmere Road and Penruddock Rise (accessible only from the east) and there are now no cordons on Old Tai Tapu Road.
Cordons can be lifted only after full risk assessments have been completed, including asbestos and geotechnical hazards, but lifting all of them was a high priority, Civil Defence said on Friday afternoon.
Remaining cordons were controlled by Civil Defence, but manned by police and Defence Force personnel, with assistance from visiting US Coastguard personnel.
Evacuated residents will be able to enter cordoned off zones to retrieve essential supplies.
An application process has been set up for people to collect items such as medication, clothing, documents and sorely missed pets as well as to move livestock.
Residents who register to enter the cordon will be contacted with information as to when they are able to go to their property, and will be accompanied by a police officer.
To apply, people should call 0800 800 169 or fill out a request form on the council's website.
The Te Hapua Halswell Centre remained open as an evacuation centre on Friday, while two others, at Nga Hau E Wha Marae and in Selwyn, had closed.
Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey said many returning to their houses would notice a strong smoky smell lingering, but it did not present any long-term harm to people's health.
DRIZZLE 'LIKE SPITTING ON A BARBECUE'
Persistent drizzle is falling in Christchurch, quelling the nerves of residents, but making the jobs of firefighters dampening the blaze more difficult.
But wet conditions, which were expected to continue through the weekend, were making it more difficult to identify hotspots and reducing visibility, rather than providing the relief expected.
"We really did not need this rain," sector boss Phil Crutchley said.
"The guys were making a lot of progress. Now it's made it a lot more difficult."
Incident commander Richard McNamara said it was "like spitting on a barbecue".
"We don't need it to be honest. We could have done with it in three days time."
Winds were forecast to pick up on Friday afternoon and there was still extreme heat in the ground and in vegetation, which posed a "very real risk" of flare-ups, Civil Defence said shortly before midday on Friday.
MetService forecaster Aidan Pyselman said with the north to northeast flow over the area, cloud should thicken and patchy drizzle was expected.
"We're hoping for a bit more rain from earlier tomorrow morning, with the stuff over the North Island at the moment slowly sinking southwards."
SMOKE AND HEAT DAMAGE RISK
Hundreds of homes near Christchurch's Port Hills may be at risk of fire damage, even if they are spared from flames sweeping through the area.
Police expected "a large number of homes" in the area would have been damaged by the smoke and heat, if not the fire itself, Civil Defence said.
"The number of damaged homes in total will not be known until the fire emergency has ended."
Civil Defence was unable to give any information about the status of individual homes inside the fire zone.
"We are aware that this is an extremely anxious time for residents who have had to leave their homes and we are working with other agencies to arrange for this information to be passed on to homeowners in the affected areas as soon as the information becomes available."
FIRES 'RE-TRIGGERING' TRAUMATISED CANTABS
Christchurch might be slowly returning to normal, but health professionals are warning that the impact of disaster could go on for a long time.
A manager of Christchurch's Mental Health Advocacy and Peer Support said the strains of the fires were "re-triggering children and adults"
"Widespread need for mental health and addiction services will be ramping up again.
"We are certainly fielding calls from parents with hyper anxious children, and people for whom this traumatic time has been the final straw in their tenuous emotional wellbeing."
Experience and research suggested those who had been hyped up on adrenalin during the fires could feel shaky, queasy, on-edge, and find it hard to concentrate on the days after, All Right? manager Sue Turner said.
Anger and crying was normal, with ways to de-stress including light physical activity, taking up a small chore or focusing on calm breathing for 10 seconds.
"You need to pace yourself. Go slow and steady, and look after yourself."
The best advice Turner had for anyone experiencing issues was to phone their GP. After hours they would be put through to a 24/7 nurse.
The Canterbury Earthquake Support Line was also still available for people to access on 0800 777 846
A BLAZE LIKE NO OTHER
Civil Defence's Christchurch controller, John Mackie, described the blaze as "beyond anything we've ever had to deal with".
The fire was largely contained but not yet under control, but the firefighting effort was shifting from air-based to ground-based firefighting.
"Water drops won't put the fire out completely so we have to back that up with the heavy machinery to put fire breaks in and dig out the hot spots. That's where a lot of our focus is today with diggers working at several locations, along with 15 helicopters and three fixed wing aircraft," Civil Defence said.
In areas that diggers could not access to create fire breaks, fire retardant would be dropped to stop the fire's spread.
Fifteen tonnes of flame retardant would arrive on Friday afternoon aboard a Defence Force Hercules C130.
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."
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 don't have things like individual cell phone numbers . . . We should have a better handle on [timeframes for people being able to return home] closer toward the end of [Friday].
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.
Three people had been taken to Christchurch Hospital with injuries related to the fire – two with smoke inhalation, and the third with an injury suffered while evacuating.
A spokeswoman for the Christchurch District Health Board said a female firefighter was having trouble breathing after suffering smoke inhalation but was "fine" after treatment.
A 9-year-old boy was also admitted with asthma "exacerbated by the smoke", while a man was admitted after injuring his ankle while evacuating his property.
FIRE BAN, AREAS OUT OF BOUNDS
There was a total fire ban in place in North and Canterbury, and fire region manager Steve Turek said it was important no fires were lit to ensure the Fire Service could concentrate its efforts on the Port Hills.
Emergency services were preparing to continue their operations for the weekend, if not longer, with their priority keeping the major blaze away from people and property.
Civil Defence recommended no recreational activities, such as camping, cycling or picnics, within an area where it warned the fire and smoke could spread.
The yellow line boundary shows where further fire spread and smoke could pose a risk and cause health concerns.
Non-residents were urged to stay away from the area to allow access for emergency services.
Residents within the zone who had not already been evacuated were not affected.
If further evacuations were required, those would be led by Civil Defence, but anyone who felt unsafe or anxious was advised to self-evacuate.