Waikari fire: Waipara residents can return home tonight

4:30 pm on 19 February 2024

Residents of North Canterbury's Waipara township have been told by Fire and Emergency they can return to their homes tonight.

The 300 hectare vegetation fire in Canterbury's Waikari Valley jumped its containment line again this afternoon, but two helicopters and more than 50 firefighters have been working successfully to contain it once again, said Fire and Emergency.

The fire broke out just after 8pm on Sunday and properties near Waipara, in North Canterbury, were evacuated.

Civil Defence said about 10 people spent the night in the Waipara Memorial Hall, while others slept in caravans outside.

But while residents would be allowed to go back home, incident commander Des Irving said progress in extinguishing the fire completely was slow.

"This fire won't be out tomorrow. This fire could take a little bit longer before we've actually got it out."

He said the fire was subterranean so it was burning under the ground and therefore took longer to extinguish.

Fire and Emergency said due to high winds, only two helicopters with specialised equipment have been in operation today.

There have been no reported livestock losses, or any structures lost or damaged.

Waikari residents told by Fire and Emergency that they can return home at a meeting on 19 February, 2024.

Waikari residents told by Fire and Emergency that they can return home at a meeting on 19 February, 2024. Photo: RNZ / Nathan Mckinnon

Irving thanked residents for their continued patience.

"They've been amazing, we're really appreciative of the residents and their support and understanding. We acknowledge that this has been quite a stressful time for them and also managing their pets and their stock."

Irving said there had been a "a little bit of panic" at 11am when the fire jumped the containment line.

He acknowledged that firefighters had been "pretty busy" tackling the Waikari Valley fire as well as the Port Hills blaze but he said they did have enough resources.

"We're rotating our crews through where we can and we've actually got crews from the West Coast over today and we've brought other people in from around the country to support our operations.

"We certainly have enough resources, both human resources and appliances to manage this fire, the Port Hills fire and some in reserve in case we're required elsewhere."

He said ground crews will monitor the fire through the night.

Hurunui District mayor Marie Black told Midday Report a recent briefing by FENZ for evacuees revealed strong north-west winds had seen the fire "billow up a bit".

A vegetation fire has burnt through land and fences on Waikari Valley Road in Canterbury. Photo taken - 19 February 2024.

Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

Black said crews were continuing with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to manage the blaze as best they could.

Because of the flare up, evacuation orders will remain in place for the time being.

Black said recent dry weather had "exacerbated" the fire risk across the region and many residents were living on a knife edge because of the risk and danger it posed.

She was not aware of any resourcing issues given the two large blazes - but acknowledged the work of volunteer firefighters who were carrying a heavy burden to protect their community.

Firefighters continue work to contain blaze

Ground crews were strengthening the containment line while helicopters work from the air.

There have been no reported livestock losses, or any structures lost or damaged.

Fire and Emergency NZ said it was working with the residents, as well as farmers in the area, to allow them back as soon as possible.

FENZ staff consult a map in the Waipara Memorial Hall following the Waikari Valley fire.

FENZ staff consult a map in the Waipara Memorial Hall. Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

Evacuees saw flames coming down the hill

Evacuee Louise Smith was worried about her landlord's farm, but heard the stock had been moved to safety.

"At 3 o'clock this morning, my partner could see the flames coming down the hill and it was just really windy which was quite worrying for the firefighters and stuff and everyone helping."

Les Winslade had to jump in his caravan to escape the vegetation fire in Canterbury's Waikari Valley on 18 February 2024.

Les Winslade Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

Les Winslade said he was waiting to get home to check on his livestock. He has eight cows on a lifestyle block that he hopes have survived.

"It's a bit of a worry because way back in 1989, me and the wife had an experience where our house burnt down and we lost animals in the fire so it's a bit traumatic for us.

"It brought back scary memories."

Winslade said he was grateful for the work of the firefighters to get the blaze under control.

Sally Thompson, pictured at the Waipara Memorial Hall. An evacuation centre was set up here on 18 February after a vegetation fire broke out in Canterbury's Waikari Valley.

Sally Thompson. Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

Sally Thompson said her son's friend sent him a video of the fire heading towards their home last night.

When she went outside, she said the north-west wind was blowing smoke straight towards them.

"Then as time went on, we got a phone call from one of the local fireman and he said: 'Oh, perhaps be prepared that you probably will be evacuated', and then just before midnight, we got a knock on the door from a policeman. We had readied a couple of bags and some precious photos and things and got them in four different vehicles with the farm dog.

"We managed to get the farm dog, but the cats didn't want to have a bar of it so they're still at home.

"I'm pretty sure they would run if it got as far as that. But it did come over the hill, over Mount Donald and hopefully they can contain it today, but the wind's not going to help especially if it's too windy for the helicopters to go up so that's not going to help at all either."

Thompson and her husband stayed in their car outside the Waipara Memorial Hall overnight where a community meeting for residents was held on Monday morning.

A vegetation fire has burnt through land and fences on Waikari Valley Road in Canterbury. Photo taken - 19 February 2024.

The vegetation fire has burnt through a large amount of land. Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

Another meeting is being held for residents at midday and Fire and Emergency said its aimed to return displaced them to their homes as soon as possible.

Canterbury high country was currently under an orange strong wind warning - with the zone just brushing the Waikari area.

Metservice meteorologist Mmathapelo Makgabutlane said winds could reach up to 120 km/h in exposed area.

The wind was tied to a front approaching and could hit late morning or early afternoon.

Makgabutlane said people in those areas should keep a close eyes on winds speeds.

In a statement early this morning, Incident Controller Dave Key said crews had been working hard overnight to bring the blaze under control.

Scene of a large vegetation fire in Waikari Valley, Canterbury on 19 February 2024.

The scene of the Waikari Valley fire early on Monday morning. Photo: RNZ / Anna Sargent

"From first light crews will be able to assess the fire ground from the air and gain a better understanding of its size."

The helicopters were in the air before 7am.

Flames were "moving through gorse and scrub" in the valley, Key said.

A screengrab from a video shot at the Waikari Valley fire on Sunday night.

Flames seen from the Waikari Valley fire on Sunday. Photo: Supplied/ Screengrab

RNZ's reporter at the scene said the fire was in a remote valley and she could see a large portion of scorched grass on one side.

She said there was smoke rolling through parts of the valley with a strong smell of smoke.

Residents from Glenmark Drive and Shell Rock Road were evacuated.

Those on Sealeys Direct Road were also going to be evacuated but FENZ said the fire changed direction so they did not need to leave.

HUHANZ (Helping You Help Animals) offered a stock trailer and portable yards to those affected, but said MPI advice advice on evacuating livestock and animals here should be the first port of call. Residents were also posting offers of help on local Facebook pages, including loans of horse floats and paddock space, and crates for pets.

Most of the South Island is currently under fire restrictions, and the dry conditions meant some areas within the Hurunui District Council zone were already under level 4 water restrictions.

In January, FENZ warned the region was tinder dry, the fire risk was the worst it had been in years, and an incident control team was set up in South Canterbury as a pre-emptive measure.

But a cluster of wildfires have already caused destruction this year, including houses and a church destroyed in Loburn, and a number of homes threatened by a long series of fires along a railway line between Aylesbury and Darfield, west of Christchurch.

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