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Major wildfire in Christchurch’s Port Hills, state of emergency declared, New Zealand

Major wildfire in Christchurch's Port Hills, state of emergency declared, New Zealand

Fire and Emergency New Zealand reported a large vegetation fire covering about 650 ha (1 606 acres) in the Port Hills near Christchurch on February 15, 2024. A state of emergency was declared the previous day, with 130 firefighters, 11 helicopters, and heavy machinery deployed. Evacuations affected 80 properties, though no homes were lost. The blaze remains uncontained, and a public health warning was issued due to smoke.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) has been actively responding to a significant vegetation fire in the Port Hills near Christchurch. The wildfire, which started on February 13, 2024, led to the declaration of a state of emergency shortly after its outbreak.

This incident comes seven years after the devastating Port Hills fires in February 2017, which consumed over 1 600 ha (3 954 acres) of land, resulted in a firefighter’s death, and the loss of nine homes along with two other structures.

As of Wednesday, February 14, 2024, FENZ confirmed the deployment of 130 firefighters, supplemented by 11 helicopters equipped with monsoon buckets, and heavy machinery to construct firebreaks in a bid to contain the fire. Despite these efforts, the fire had not been contained by Wednesday night, leading to evacuations from 80 properties. However, no homes have been reported lost to the fire thus far.

FENZ said on Wednesday afternoon the helicopters will continue working until dark, and ground operations will continue through the night. Cordons remain in place and people are asked to stay well away from the area so traffic build-up doesn’t delay emergency services.

Additionally, a public health warning has been issued by Te Whatu Ora National Public Health Service regarding smoke from the fire, highlighting the potential health risks for sensitive individuals, including those with heart or lung conditions, pregnant women, young children, and the elderly.

Major wildfire in Christchurch's Port Hills, state of emergency declared, New Zealand b
Major wildfire in Christchurch's Port Hills, state of emergency declared, New Zealand c
Image credit: Fire and Emergency New Zealand
Major wildfire in Christchurch's Port Hills, state of emergency declared, New Zealand a
Image credit: Fire and Emergency New Zealand

By midnight UTC on February 15, 2024, FENZ updated the situation, noting that the fire had slightly reduced in size to 630 ha (1 556 acres). The firefighting resources had been significantly increased to 28 appliances, 15 helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, two bulldozers, and a digger. The fire’s advancement across Summit Rd posed new challenges, prompting efforts to contain it and protect nearby areas such as Kennedy Bush and Summit Rd through retardant drops.

Local experts have commented on the conditions conducive to the wildfire’s development. Nathanael Melia, a climate change consultant, and George Perry, a professor at the University of Auckland, attributed the increased frequency and severity of wildfires to changing climate conditions and the current El Niño season.

Nicola Day, from Victoria University of Wellington, emphasized the end of summer as a critical period for wildfire risk due to dry vegetation.

References:

1 Fire and Emergency NZ updates – February 14 and 15, 2024

2 New Zealand’s Port Hills suffers large wildfire – Xinhua – February 15, 2024

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