New Zealand Wildfire Halted Before More Homes Burn

Associated Press
Published: February 16, 2017

After 11 homes were destroyed and hundreds were forced to evacuate, there was finally some good news from officials fighting a wildfire in New Zealand's second-largest city: crews have halted the inferno's advance toward suburban homes.

It took more than 100 firefighters on the ground and a dozen helicopters in the air to stop the blaze's advance on Christchurch, civil defense controller John Mackie said Thursday. He said they plan to let the fire burn itself out, aided by expected rainfall over the weekend.

The conflagration has consumed about 5,000 acres in Christchurch's Port Hills. It is under investigation, and the cause remains unknown, Mackie also said.

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A helicopter pilot who was a decorated soldier died in a crash while fighting the blaze earlier this week.

Christchurch City and adjacent Selwyn District declared a state of emergency Wednesday. Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton said changing winds had made the fire unpredictable.

He said the region had been unusually dry for three years and the grass in the hills had turned brown over the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Police ordered the evacuation of about 400 homes while many others nearby were choosing to leave. Broughton said displaced residents were staying at evacuation centers or with relatives.

"They need to look after one another, and make sure they have a place to go," he said.

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Phil Claude told Radio New Zealand he and his family ran down a grass track to escape the fire, which destroyed their home.

"I could see that the smoke and the flames were being blown right up toward our house," he said. "And I just yelled 'Get out. Get out!'"

A new mountain bike park, the Christchurch Adventure Park, was threatened by the fire.

New Zealand's military was providing water tankers and engineering equipment as well as firefighters and other personnel.

The helicopter pilot who died while fighting the fire, Cpl. David Steven Askin, won one of the country's top awards for bravery for his actions in Afghanistan.

Askin was a member of the elite Special Air Service and his identity was kept secret when he won the Gallantry Star medal in 2014. He was cited for efforts that included helping save guests during the 2011 siege of the luxury Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul that left at least 20 people dead.


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