Christchurch declares emergency as bushfire destroys homes; one dead

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Civil defence officials declared a state of emergency late on Wednesday as two blazes that had been smouldering for days merged into a single giant firefront.

The fire began on Monday, along Early Valley Road In Lansdowne, with a second blaze on Marley's Hill in a auto park off Summit Road.

About 300 firefighters are still monitoring the fire, and an Air Force C-130 Hercules will continue to distribute retardant.

According to Mackie, the plan was to let it burn itself out, and that a forecast of rain over the weekend would help.

Christchurch City Council said more than 1,800 hectares of land had been torched in the Port Hills, an area of rugged terrain hard to access to the east of the city centre.

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Early this morning the fire service expressed hope that the situation was a lot calmer, with fire crews having a good night dampening down flare-ups. They are not in any danger from the fire, which was about two kilometres away.

The helicopter pilot who died while fighting the fire, Cpl.

A decorated special veteran, piloting one of the firefighting helicopters, died in a crash on Tuesday. His formerly secret role in defense missions in Afghanistan were only revealed after his death.

Prime Minister Bill English said yesterday the fires may have been deliberately lit.

The fire forced about 300 people to flee, media reported.

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Local Mayor Sam Broughton said changing winds had made the fire unpredictable, especially so as the region had been unusually dry for past three years. Broughton said displaced residents were staying at evacuation centers or with relatives. "And we had to go and tell our kids", she said.

Initial reports suggested up to 40 homes had been lost but the Civil Defence later revised the number down after they received a correction from police.

Smoke dominated the skyline in Christchurch on Monday afternoon, prompting the Canterbury District Health Board to issue health advice.

He said it could take up to a week before the fire was fully under control, but that the blaze had been contained on Thursday and was not spreading further.

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