Christchurch Port Hills fire: Further cordons lifted but potential for flare-ups continues
Hundreds of Christchurch fire evacuees were able to sleep in their own beds on Friday night, and more will be allowed to return home on Saturday, though the fire-ravaged Port Hills aren't yet out of the woods.
Fire crews remained stationed near Worsleys Rd and Early Valley Rd overnight, dampening down flare-ups, with their work set to continue for several days to come.
Crews worked overnight, monitoring the situation and managing hot spots, as well as preparing the 29 kilometre perimeter for the application of fire retardant on Saturday.
At their peak, two fires, which began on Monday, raged over 1800 hectares of land, forcing the evacuation of 450 homes, and destroying at least 11 houses.
Some of those who lost everything they owned in the blaze were also able to return to their properties on Friday to survey the damage.
Several cordons were lifted on Friday afternoon, allowing more than 1400 evacuees back to their houses, while further cordons were lifted late on Friday night.
At 6am on Saturday, six cordons remained.
Late Friday night, Civil Defence announced cordons along Cashmere Road had been removed at the intersections with Shalamar Drive, Worsleys Road, Opihi Street, Hendersons Road and Sutherlands Road.
The cordon at the intersection of Kennedys Bush Road and Cashmere Road had moved to the other side of the intersection, keeping the uphill section of Kennedys Bush Road closed.
Another at the corner of Dyers Pass Rd and Hackthorne Rd, near Cup Café, had lifted.
A cordon remained in place at the intersection of Hoon Hay Valley Road and Cashmere Road, with Hoon Hay Valley Road still closed to the public.
The cordon at Dyers Pass and Hackthorne Rd immediately adjacent to the Sign of the Takahe also remained in place. The public now had access up to the Sign of the Takahe, including roads such as Takahe Drive.
There was no access to Longhurst Terrace and roads leading from it, Dyers Pass Road above the Sign of the Takahe, and Pentre Terrace.
Earlier on Friday, 1400 residents were allowed home for the night when cordons at the corners of Early Valley Road and Old Tai Tapu Road, Osterholts Road and Old Tai Tapu Road, and Cashmere Road and Penruddock Rise, were lifted.
Cordons could be lifted only after full risk assessments had 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.
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.
ACCESS TO STILL-CORDONED AREAS
Evacuated residents would be able to enter cordoned off zones to retrieve essential supplies, such as medication, clothing and documents, as well as pets, and to move livestock.
However, those evacuated residents were required to register to enter the cordon. They would be accompanied by a police officer to do so.
To register, people should call 0800 800 169 or fill out a request form on the council's website. Council said about 80 registration applications had been received.
The Te Hapua Halswell Centre remained open as an evacuation centre on Friday night, while others had closed.
Health professionals also warned the mental impact of disaster could go on for a long time, with the fires "re-triggering" those who had lived through the city's quakes.
The Canterbury Earthquake Support Line was also still available for people to access on 0800 777 846
A public meeting for those affected by the fire would be held at the South West Baptist Church Gymnasium at 10am.
Christchurch city council said the meeting was intended for affected residents within the cordoned area only. It would be an opportunity to ask questions of key people involved in the emergency response.
Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel, Christchurch Civil Defence Controller, Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey and representatives from NZ Police and NZ Fire Service would be speaking at the meeting.
More light rain will fall on Christchurch on Saturday, a day after drizzle hampered firefighters' efforts against the massive blaze.
Persistent drizzle on Friday calmed the nerves of residents, but it was unwanted by fire crews, reducing visibility, grounding helicopters, and made it harder for firefighters to identify hotspots.
That light rain was set to continue throughout the weekend, alongside winds reaching up to 30kmh on Sunday, before the fine weather returned - again raising the fire risk.
"We really did not need this rain," Rural Fire sector boss Phil Crutchley said on Friday.
"The guys were making a lot of progress. Now it's made it a lot more difficult."
MetService expected the rain to dry up by about midday Sunday, with overcast and fine weather during the week.
There was still extreme heat in the ground and in vegetation, which posed a "very real risk" of flare-ups, Civil Defence said on Friday.
Fifteen tonnes of flame retardant arrived on Friday evening aboard a Defence Force Hercules C130, and would be dropped in areas that diggers, which were making fire breaks, couldn't reach.
SUSPICIOUS OR NOT?
The first fire began in Lansdowne on Early Valley Rd on Monday, followed about 90 minutes later by a second that started in a car park near Marleys Hill, off Summit Rd.
It was understood the first blaze was the result of an electrical fault, but the cause of the Marley's Hill fire remained unknown.
Earlier, Prime Minister Bill English and independent fire investigator Ken Legat had suggested the fires were 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.
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.
Civil Defence recommended no recreational activities, such as camping, cycling or picnics, within an area where it warned the fire and smoke could spread.
Non-residents were urged to stay away from the area to allow access for emergency services.