New Zealand wildfires prompt hundreds of evacuations

New Zealand wildfires prompt hundreds of evacuations

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Hundreds of people in New Zealand’s second-largest city were evacuated from their homes Wednesday as wildfires burned down several houses and threatened to encroach further into some suburbs.

A helicopter pilot who was a decorated soldier died in a crash while fighting the blaze on Tuesday.

The mayors of Christchurch City and the adjacent Selwyn District declared a state of emergency. Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton said changing winds had made the fires 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.

Smoke and ash were being blown across Christchurch. Broughton said displaced residents were staying at evacuation centres or with relatives.

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

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!'”

The Christchurch City Council reported that two or three homes were destroyed Wednesday evening after authorities said a few others were destroyed earlier.

New Zealand’s military has been deployed to provide 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.

“Corporal Askin was wounded by grenade and rifle fire, yet carried on his mission and rescued guests from the hotel as fire broke out,” the Defence Force said in a statement.

Nick Perry, The Associated Press