Fire co-ordinator ranks Christchurch Port Hills blaze 'on another level'

The fire edges closer to Christchurch on Wednesday.
EMILY BENSON

The fire edges closer to Christchurch on Wednesday.

In a career spanning decades and numerous fires, Richard McNamara says the Christchurch Port Hills fires are on "another level".

The rural fire boss for Marlborough is helping co-ordinate the air attack against the blaze and said its proximity to the city made it a significant threat.

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.

Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Richard McNamara is helping co-ordinate the fire ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Richard McNamara is helping co-ordinate the fire response in Christchurch.

McNamara is no stranger to raging fires, with experience fighting some of the worst fires of the modern era including the Black Saturday bush fires in Australia.

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He has headed aircraft operations and incident control for the Canterbury fires since Wednesday and said it ranked as one of the worst of his career.

The Port Hills fire has destroyed homes, forced evacuations and resulted in the death of a pilot.
SUPPLIED/OLIVER WATSON

The Port Hills fire has destroyed homes, forced evacuations and resulted in the death of a pilot.

"You can have a massive fire but if it's in the wilderness it will burn without a huge impact on people," he said.

"The human impact of this fire is on another level. We can replace a forest or a home, but we can't replace a person."

Starting south of Christchurch in Marleys Hills, the fires had grown to cover more than 2000 hectares of land.

A fire burns above homes in Cracroft.
IAIN MCGREGOR

A fire burns above homes in Cracroft.

The fires had already claimed a life, after helicopter pilot David Steven Askin crashed near Sugarloaf while battling a blaze on Tuesday afternoon. 

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Askin was a former war hero once injured in a Taliban shootout and McNamara said he was a well-respected pilot.

Dry grass and steep slopes, combined with high wind, made this fire difficult to battle, McNamara said.

A map showing the fire area, which covers more than 2000 hectares.
STACY SQUIRES

A map showing the fire area, which covers more than 2000 hectares.

A small amount of rain on Friday morning did lift spirits, but McNamara likened the effect to spitting on a barbecue.

"This fire has had a significant effect in Christchurch and we need to be aware of the sensitivities of people right now," he said.

"This has been a huge impact on those suburbs and we are doing all we can to rid the community of this threat."

The view from Pak 'n Save Moorhouse on Wednesday.
AMY TANGNEY

The view from Pak 'n Save Moorhouse on Wednesday.

McNamara, the Marlborough Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer, said it was important for firefighters and incident controllers to remain calm and ensure the fire was extinguished.

"For the people impacted, this is their emergency. As leaders in the response the thing we cannot do is become victims."

The fire risk remained too high in Marlborough to allocate any crews to the battle in Christchurch, McNamara said.

"We have good fire management in Marlborough but we need those people there," he said.

"We probably have the highest fire risk of anywhere in the country right now, probably even higher than the Port Hills and Canterbury."

Marlborough Kaikoura deputy principal rural fire officer John Foley said crews from the Marlborough Sounds might be dispatched if the Christchurch fires kept spreading.

 - The Marlborough Express

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