Firefighters could have died if not pulled back during Port Hills blaze video

Richard McNamara defended the decision of three "very experienced" fire commanders who pulled firefighters out at a ...
ANTHONY PHELPS/FAIRFAX NZ

Richard McNamara defended the decision of three "very experienced" fire commanders who pulled firefighters out at a crucial time on Monday evening.

Residents in Christchurch's Port Hills could be facing more concerns for their properties, with experts assessing the risk of landslips and boulder falls on Monday. 

Assessments were being carried out on fire damaged slopes where vegetation had been burnt off to gauge the potential threat of soil and rock damage to the homes below.

Although these areas appeared "sound" there was concern the situation could change with heavy rain.

Trevor Andrew, of the Ashburton Rural Fire Force, digs for smouldering tree roots on the Port Hills during the ...
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Trevor Andrew, of the Ashburton Rural Fire Force, digs for smouldering tree roots on the Port Hills during the Christchurch fires.

The Christchurch City Council said getting the information was a factor in assessing risk before evacuees were allowed to go back to their home.

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Civil Defence Controller John Mackie said infra-red imaging had been completed and the results would be used to update fire-risk models.

Charlie Gates

A flythrough showing the impact of the Port Hills fire in Christchurch.

LIVES OVER HOUSES

The fresh concerns come as the Fire Service responds to criticism about its response right after the fires started on February 13.

Fire incident controller Richard McNamara said firefighters could have died had they not been called back to their station at a crucial point last week. 

Alan Beck, right, and his son David Beck have been tackling the fire in the Port Hills. Alan said the blaze is one of ...
JONATHAN LEASK/FAIRFAX NZ

Alan Beck, right, and his son David Beck have been tackling the fire in the Port Hills. Alan said the blaze is one of the most dangerous he's ever worked on.

The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union called for an independent inquiry after claims a group of its members was taken away from a section of the fire by rural fire operators, only to be called back 90 minutes later.

McNamara said he had "absolute faith" in the three "very experienced" fire commanders at the fire-front who made that call and backed them "100 per cent".

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"They made that call on behalf of their crew's safety. This is the number one priority."

McNamara said the fire was "the most complex fire in New Zealand history".

Digging out smouldering tree roots on the Port Hills during the Christchurch fires.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Digging out smouldering tree roots on the Port Hills during the Christchurch fires.

"I'm not going to throw a life away for the sake of a house," he said.

"When you've got that amount of heat coming up the hill and big boulders rolling down the hill, what do you think is the right call in that situation."

'MOST DANGEROUS' FIRES

Smouldering remains looking south from Dyers Pass Rd on the Port Hills on Sunday.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Smouldering remains looking south from Dyers Pass Rd on the Port Hills on Sunday.

Heavy fog on Monday morning grounded helicopters still battling the fires, which the lead pilot said were "the most dangerous" he has worked on in 45 years.

Alan Beck said about four helicopters were stuck at Christchurch Airport on Monday morning, while about eight more waited at Halswell Quarry Park for the fog to lift.

A reduced aerial attack operated on Monday afternoon to allow pilots and air support crew to attend the funeral of Steve Askin, who died after his helicopter crashed while fighting the fires on February 14.

A bent road marker from the heat Dyers Pass Rd on the Port Hills.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

A bent road marker from the heat Dyers Pass Rd on the Port Hills.

The blaze, which started on February 13, had ripped through 2075 hectares as of Sunday evening. About 450 houses were evacuated and at least 11 homes destroyed.

"We're fogged in up on the hill. We really need the wind to blow the fog away so we can back into it," Beck said.

"It's very, very difficult conditions for all the pilots and the ground crews [on Monday]."

Beck said the fire remained "well under control" and temperatures remained low.

The blaze had been "one of the most dangerous" Beck said he had worked on in his 45 years of flying.

Poor visibility and severe downdrafts made accurate firefighting a challenge for pilots. 

"They've done a really professional job."

More than 300 firefighters stood in the way of the flames on steep slopes while helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, flown by some of the country's best pilots, battled the blaze with monsoon buckets and fire retardant, which stopped the fire in its tracks in some places. 

Beck said colleagues of the late pilot Steve Askin had not had time to grieve for their comrade, who died when his helicopter crashed while he was fighting the blaze near Sugarloaf on Tuesday afternoon.

"It's his funeral [on Monday] – we'll try to get to it, but we know his family will understand if we're needed on the job."

Beck said the fire was now under control but the job was not finished.

"People look at everything blackened, with no smoke and they think it's all over – it's not."

McNamara said the blaze was contained to a 30-kilometre perimeter, but still had "a lot of heat" and would not be fully extinguished for a few more days.

Hotspots threatened to reignite the blaze, unless there was "significant rain".

The main firefighting efforts were still focused on the area above Dyers Pass Rd below the Sign of the Kiwi and into Victoria Park, as well as in and around Sugarloaf.

"We need to make sure it's completely under control before we down staff," McNamara said.

"We could get flare-ups in areas like Dyers Pass, where there are forestry areas nearby that could fuel a fire.

"The fire is hiding in among that forest and if that gets up and runs again, with those heavy fuels, it can go from whoa to go in minutes."

Thermal images taken of the area indicated hot-spots were burning at 300 degrees Celsius to 400C.

McNamara said up to 150 firefighters and fixed-wing aircraft would monitor for the threat of flare-ups for at least another week.

Heavy machinery will be used to create further containment lines around the fire, while aircraft will drop more retardant to create "a secure fence between the fire and residential property".

"We have been lucky with the northeasterly wind coming in and cooler temperatures, but the forecast is for temperatures to start going up, cloud to burn off, and a bit of westerly [wind] later in the week," McNamara said.

"They are all fire conditions to get the fire cranking again . . . if we don't have those control lines in place the risk is always that it is going to break."

POWER TO HOMES

A Civil Defence statement released on Monday morning said about 40 homes remained without power in the Port Hills area.

"Orion has made good progress with the restoration of services to homes and businesses affected by the Port Hills fires," the statement said.

Power crews replaced 32 damaged power poles and restored power to 85 homes over the weekend.

The restoration of power to the remaining properties would be a priority this week, it said, as crews are given access to affected areas by emergency services.

CORDONS REMAIN

Civil Defence say 154 properties remain behind cordons. Frequent risk assessments were being carried out cordons will be lifted accordingly.

A cordon remains in place on Dyers Pass Rd between 236 Dyers Pass Rd and Governors Bay Rd. Residents with properties below this area, including on Longhurst Tce and Pentre Tce, can now access their homes.

A further cordon has been set up on Victoria Park Rd above the last house on this road.

The Kennedys Bush Rd cordon has been moved back so residents up to and including 299 and 304 Kennedys Bush Rd can now access their homes.

Worsleys Rd remains closed above 327 Worsleys Rd.

Summit Rd from Gebbies Pass Rd to Dyers Pass Rd remains closed.

Hoon Hay Valley Rd remains closed.

TRACKS REMAIN CLOSED

Access to Port Hills tracks including Rapaki Track and Huntsbury Track remain closed on Monday.

Christchurch City Council regional parks operations manager Kay Holder said although the tracks were not directly affected by the fire, the public could be in the path of helicopters with monsoon buckets and other emergency services.

"We had to ensure the public safety and we had to allow emergency services to do their job without endangering the public," she said.

"And at the beginning they simply didn't know which way the fire would go."

 - Stuff

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