Watch: Port Hills state of emergency lifted, investigation into cause of fire ongoing

1:29 pm on 21 February 2024

A state of emergency, in place since a wildfire tore through hundreds of hectares of forest and scrub on Christchurch's Port Hills last week, was lifted at 1pm on Wednesday.

Canterbury Civil Defence group controller Richard Ball said authorities would transition to a recovery phase at that point.

"In a practical sense, it's going to be a continuation of working together across all services and agencies, as we have been doing throughout the response," he told media shortly before 1pm.

"The nature of recovery is fundamentally different from response. The immediate risks to people, animals, property and the natural environment has diminished, and recovery is a slower and more deliberate process."

Ball said recovery would involve the "wider community, not just those living in the immediate area".

"There are many ways to help, but please understand recovery is complex and takes time, especially if you want to do it well."

He said after "two serious fires in seven years", community engagement would be vital.

Crews at the Port Hills fire were tackling 20 hotspots on Wednesday morning as the fire risk remained high. Incident Controller Dave Key said 70 firefighters were at the scene. A drone on Tuesday night identified 20 hotspots and firefighters were working on turning over and extinguishing those.

Key said there would be no helicopters or aircraft assisting on Wednesday.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) area commander Colin Russell said on Wednesday FENZ was scaling back its work, with all helicopters and aircraft grounded on Tuesday, but the switch to a recovery "does not affect the status of our operations".

"We do have the capacity to stand them up again if we need to. The aim is to clear all the hotspots before we hand the land back to the landowners."

"It's a very large fireground, around 500ha with a 24km perimeter, so we have a large area to deal with."

Russell said FENZ was assessing restrictions on access to the areas surrounding the fire, with cordons at Early Valley lifted on Tuesday.

"Canterbury remains in a prohibited fire season, so the fire danger is still very high and we will be entering some more high-risk periods over the weekend and in future weeks, so we ask the public to be very vigilant and careful."

The fire started on 14 February and quickly grew to burn through 650ha. Key said the fire risk remained extremely high and people need to stay very aware of that.

Residents of north Canterbury's Waipara township returned home on Monday after a 300ha blaze at at Waikari Valley was brought under control.

Russell said an investigation into the cause of the fire, with police, was ongoing. He could not give any details on how it was progressing.

"It's far too easily at this stage to make any further comment on the cause."

He urged anyone with information to get in touch.

Christchurch Mayor Phil Mauger on Wednesday thanked residents who were evacuated last week, acknowledging the disruption and anxiety the fire brought to their lives, some for a second time after the fires seven years ago.

Mauger thanked FENZ and Civil Defence for moving quickly to fight the blaze once the state of emergency was called, saying he was "extremely impressed" with the "well coordinated response".

Selwyn District Council recovery manager Al Lawn said he was "very, very grateful for their incredible mahi they have done over the last week or so".

Mauger also thanked evacuated residents for their cooperation, and the families of those who worked to bring the blaze under control.

"I also want to thank the families who've picked up the slack while their loved ones have been out doing what they needed to do to get this fire under control."

Kaumātua Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke Yvette Couch-Lewis said it took "amazing work" to get the fire under control.

"The Port Hills is a unique place… a treasure we should all look after."

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