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How did the Port Hills fire start?

Author
Sam Sherwood,
Publish Date
Thu, 15 Feb 2024, 11:37am

How did the Port Hills fire start?

Author
Sam Sherwood,
Publish Date
Thu, 15 Feb 2024, 11:37am

An investigation is under way into what caused the massive fire burning on Christchurch’s Port Hills, with authorities asking for information covering a crucial hour yesterday afternoon.  

Fire crews resumed their battle against the blaze this morning with 23 appliances, supported by 13 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft, tackling it from the ground and air.  

The main fire is now centred around Summit Rd with 80 properties evacuated. 

An investigation into the cause of the fire has begun, and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) has asked the public to get in contact with any photos or videos of the Port Hills taken between 1.45pm and 2.45pm yesterday. This period covers the half hour before the fire was reported until half an hour afterwards. 

“People who have photographs or videos are asked to email them to [email protected] with their name and contact details, when the photo or footage was taken and where the photographer was,” a FENZ spokesperson said. 

The Port Hills fire burning into the Christchurch Adventure Park this morning. Photo / George HeardThe Port Hills fire burning into the Christchurch Adventure Park this morning. Photo / George Heard 

Specialist wildfire investigators arriving from Tasman are also investigating what caused the fire. 

‘Disaster tourists’ asked to stay away 

Police are urging “disaster tourists” to stay away from the massive fire burning uncontrolled on Christchurch’s Port Hills. 

Fire crews resumed their battle against the blaze this morning with 23 appliances, supported by 13 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft, tackling it from the ground and air. 

The main fire is now centred around Summit Rd with 80 properties evacuated. 

Firefighters battling the fire on Christchurch's Port Hills. 
Photo / George HeardFirefighters battling the fire on Christchurch's Port Hills. Photo / George Heard 

Fire and Emergency’s Brad Mosby said there have been no significant outbreaks overnight and the fire has burnt through 630ha with a 12km perimeter. No properties have been lost. 

“Our approach today will be to hit the fire hard,” Mosby said. 

But Police manager Ash Tabb said disaster tourists were becoming an issue for those fighting the fire, as they keep blocking roads and stopping equipment coming in. 

People wanting to take a look at the fire were also stopping residents from coming in and out. 

“We just need people out of the way.” 

These “tourists” are affecting not only EMS staff accessing the fire site but also residents getting in and out at what was already a very stressful time. 

Tabb said the behaviour’s driven by people “wanting to get shots on their social media accounts”. 

Civil Defence Minister Mark Mitchell, in Christchurch, joined the plea for people to stay away and stop interfering. 

“Allow FENZ and police to do their job.” 

2017 Port Hills fire sparked by arsonist 

Last year the Christchurch Adventure Park lost an appeal after being ordered to pay $12 million in damages to homeowners following the Port Hills fires in 2017. 

The fire, which was lit by an arsonist near the boundary of the Christchurch Adventure Park (CAP), burned through nearly 2000 hectares of forestry, 11 homes and caused a significant amount of property damage for dozens of homeowners. 

In 2021, High Court Justice David Gendall ruled that while CAP, owned and operated by Leisure Investments NZ Limited Partnership, didn’t start the blaze, it was liable for the spread of the fire and ordered the company to pay the owners of 80 damaged homes a total of $12m.  

CAP appealed the ruling in 2022 and argued it had no idea its chairlift was a potential fire risk and could contribute to the spread of the blaze. It disputed liability for damages in the Court of Appeal, claiming they weren’t properly informed of the risks by the chairlift company, Doppelmayr. However, the Court of Appeal dismissed the challenge. 

In the High Court decision, Justice Gendall found “a reasonable operator” would have appreciated plastic on the chairlift could melt and spread the fire and would have removed the chairs from the rope. CAP also failed to remove pine slash from under the chairlift - in breach of the park’s fire safety management plan - and didn’t take away highly flammable mats from around the chairlift, Justice Gendall found. 

Legal counsel for the park challenged the findings, saying: “What happened was an entirely unforeseen and unprecedented event”. But the Court of Appeal dismissed the suit because the park owners knew most of the chairlift ran through pine forests, next to housing, and knew there was a possibility the fire could spread there. 

Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years. 

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