Rain makes conditions more difficult for Port Hills firefighters
Blessed rain it was not.
As a light rain licked Christchurch's blackened Port Hills, firefighters were cursing.
The "wet cloud" was insufficient to take the sting out of remaining hotspots, instead grounding helicopters and making smouldering ground more difficult to spot.
"It's like spit on a barbecue," said incident controller Richard McNamara, who estimated they had lost at least six hours of fire-fighting time. "God is playing with us."
As 1400 evacuated residents were allowed back home for the first time, firefighters across the 1800ha of charred hills were yesterday battling to keep the blaze at bay. Rain is expected to give way to 29 degree temperatures over the next few days.
Paul and Cheryl Kiesanowski were among the first to return home to Kennedys Bush, to rescue their cat Lily and count their luck as they realised just how close the fire had come. Those less fortunate - including the two families who lost houses on Early Valley Rd, were sifting through the ashes of their lives.
On Worsleys Rd, where four houses were lost, the extent - and randomness - of the damage, was laid bare. Houses were consumed, leaving only metal shells. A greenhouse exploded in the heat, just metres from an unscathed home, its flag still flying from the flagpole.
Exhausted fire crews stabbed at hillsides with shovels, rooting out smouldering stumps. Many, including St Albans firefighter Keys Kerdemelidis-Kiesanowski, had been pulling 24-hour shifts. Fatigue was beginning to tell.
"I'm unable to think properly at times."
Operational Commander Mark Elstone told of the chaos of Wednesday night, when the fire rounded on them, almost trapping his 16 crew.
"I've fought some big fires, but this is the sort of stuff you see on TV in Australia."
Police warned that even homes spared by the flames would have suffered smoke damage. Mental health advocates also reported rising demand, as the fire trauma re-triggered earthquake anxiety.
Over at Dyers Pass Rd, by the Adventure Park, the piney smell of Christmas quickly gave way to the acrid tang of smoke. Steam curled from tree roots like from a Rotorua hot pool.
"You could cook a hangi in under there," said operations manager, Southlander Trevor Tidey - one of many reinforcements from around the country. "Water is not going to get that out, we'll have to get in there with shovels."
Even as the firefighting continued, criticism also smouldered. Firefighters' Union national secretary, Derek Best said firefighters were outraged at being stood down for 90 precious minutes on Monday night - a delay which could have cost houses.
McNamara could not comment on the incident's early management as he was not there, but said a full review would be undertaken. While he would take criticism of management "on the chin" he would "defend to the hilt" the firefighters and pilots involved.