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Cordon lifts at Port Hills amid drizzle

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 16/02/2017

Families displaced by fires in Christchurch's Port Hills are slowly returning as a drizzle falls and as the firefighters' union asks why professional firefighters were called off the fire when it first started.

The police are investigating the fire, which started in two places at about the same time on Monday, but won't say it's suspicious, even though Prime Minister Bill English has speculated it might be.

The fire has destroyed 11 homes and ripped through more than 2000 hectares of scrub and forest and is largely contained.

"The fire area is not expanding and firefighters have made great progress in putting in fire breaks around the perimeter of the fire area," Civil Defence said.

In a poignant reminder of what the citizens of Christchurch have been through, on Friday organisers of the annual earthquake memorial Run to Remember event on Sunday had to cancel it.

The run is through the Port Hills.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union Secretary Derek Best on Friday called for an independent inquiry.

He told media firefighters were sent home for 90 minutes on Monday after they had contained but not extinguished the fire.

Just an hour and a half later they called back to the scene, but it was too late.

Light rain fell on Friday and is forecast to continue on Saturday.

There are now no cordons on Old Tai Tapu Road and much of Westmorland has now reopened, allowing people with properties to return, Christchurch City Council says.

The lifting of remaining cordons is a high priority for emergency services and arrangements are being made for people to be escorted to visit their properties.

The Civil Defence welfare centre at Te Hapua Halswell Centre has shifted its focus from on-site accommodation to providing recovery assistance and information.

Civil Defence said it was waiting until the situation was under control before confirming the total extent of the damage, after the number of homes destroyed was significantly over-reported on Thursday.

The effort to clean up hotspots and the whole fire area would go on for several days, it said.

Ground crews - which ballooned to 400 firefighters on Thursday - were again backed up by 15 helicopters and three planes on Friday.

Earlier, firefighters were buoyed by a light rain.

"It's been a really good night. We had some light rain, it felt like Christmas," Fire Service southern communications shift manager Riwai Grace said on Friday morning.

"It wasn't much but still, it's a lovely feeling."

Fifteen crew from the US Coastguard icebreaker Polar Star were on Friday also helping Defence Force and police in the evacuation area.

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