9.30pm Update – Port Hills Fire

The Fire Incident Controller says the Port Hills fire is now under control.

“We’ve got the fire under control, but we’ve yet to get a full stranglehold on it,’’ said Incident Controller Richard McNamara. “There’s still a lot of heat in the fire, and a 30-kilometre perimeter to manage.”

 He said there was more heavy machinery work to do on containment lines around the fire perimeter and more retardant drops were needed. “That will give us a secure fence between the fire and residential property,” Mr McNamara said. “We need to finish it off now. Having control lines in place is vital.”

He said the weather “was on our side today, with a north easterly and cool temperatures. But, there are going to be challenges with the forecast weather conditions,” he said. “Anything is possible with fire.” Wind, temperatures and terrain all had an effect on fires, he said.

 “We’ve got some very steep slopes, and fire intensity doubles for every 10 degrees of slope – we’re looking at 30 degree slopes, which means the fires are six times the intensity they would be on the flat.” Mr McNamara said that given the drier conditions forecast, they would be monitoring the threat of flare ups for at least another week. We’ll have 100 to 150 firefighters working on the fire in the coming week. They would be using 10 to 12 aircraft as well as diggers, bulldozers and tankers. “We could get flare ups in areas like Dyers Pass, where there are forestry areas nearby that could fuel a fire,” Mr McNamara said.  “We’re paying particular attention to that area.” 

Cloud cover today meant fixed-wing aircraft could not get airborne this morning, and with the cloud cover returning mid-afternoon, the planes had to be stood down again.

Manager National Rural Fire Authority, Tim Mitchell, said thermal imaging was showing hotspots of 300 to 400 degrees celsius. “We’re using the information we get from the cameras to bolster containment lines,” Mr Mitchell said.  “We’ve got a big team looking at this. Some parts of the fire area are still very hot.”

Fire Regional Manager Steve Turek said protecting houses was a priority. “We have crews on the ground,” he said. “If there are flare ups, they’ll be there to deal with them. We’ve got plenty of resources. We’ve had crews from as far south as Dunedin and Invercargill and as far north as Palmerston North helping us, and they can be called back any time we need them. The guys are very weary, but they’ve got a great spirit – they’re feeling like we’re over the hump. But we all know we cannot be complacent, especially with the weather we’ve got predicted.”

Lead pilot and Chairman NZ Agricultural Aviation Association, Alan Beck said the level of professionalism shown by the pilots fighting the fire from the air had been “really high”. “Conditions have been extremely bad, with severe downdrafts to deal with. They’ve done a really professional job.’’ The blackened areas the fire had been through were giving the public something of a false impression, he said. “People look at everything blackened, with no smoke, and they think it’s all over – it’s not,” Mr Beck said. “This is one of the most dangerous fires I’ve worked on in my 45 years of flying.”

Mr Beck said pilots had not had time to stop and grieve for their colleague, pilot Steve Askin, who died when his helicopter crashed on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s his funeral tomorrow – we’ll try to get to it, but we know his family will understand if we’re needed on the job.”

Fire retardant

The fire retardant being applied to the Port Hills fire is Phoschek, a product used worldwide to control fires in bush or grass areas. The Fire Service is reassuring members of the public that this retardant is safe, effective and environmentally friendly. It is currently being applied in the Port Hills in areas that are closed to the public. Its use has been approved by Environment Canterbury.

The fire retardant powder is mixed with water and applied across vegetation. When the retardant is heated by fire it releases minute amounts of ammonia which suppresses fire. Its use in firefighting is not toxic. The experts mixing the powder with water before it is applied wear protective clothing.

The retardant, once dropped on vegetation, appears as a red line and remains active for six to eight weeks.

Cordons

Rural Fire Liaison Officer Darrin Woods said the risk of vegetation igniting would be reassessed tomorrow morning. “At this stage, it’s unlikely that further restricted access will be allowed beyond the cordons on Kennedys Bush Road, Hoon Hay Valley Road, and Worsleys Road on Monday,” Mr Woods said. “This is due to the identification of areas of significant residual heat on uncontained fire edges in these locations.”

Current scope of the fire

  • The Port Hills fire now covers an area of 2075 hectares.
  • The main firefighting effort is taking place in the area above Dyers Pass Road below the Sign of the Kiwi and into Victoria Park, in and around Sugar Loaf, the area around Marleys Hill and the along the southern flank of the fire, where there is still a risk of it escaping out into unburnt fuel. 
  • The number of confirmed destroyed structures is 11 houses and 2 large sheds.
  • The perimeter is about 35km. Approximately 69% of this is confirmed as controlled, meaning it is bare earth or blacked out ground for at least 10 metres. 

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