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Environment

New Zealand wildfire destroys homes and forces evacuations near Christchurch

Two wildfires burning for days have converged into one huge front on the outskirts of Christchurch, destroying 11 homes. Prime Minister Bill English told reporters he thought the fires looked "suspicious."

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Hundreds evacuated in New Zealand wildfires

An out-of-control fire in New Zealand destroyed eleven homes near Christchurch on Thursday, authorities reported.

Hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate the South Island city as civil defense officials declared a state of emergency. Two separate blazes that had been burning for days converged into a single fire-front near Christchurch late Wednesday.

John Mackie, the civil defense controller for Christchurch, told the AP news agency about 130 firefighters on the ground assisted by more than a dozen helicopters had stopped the fire from encroaching further into the city.

He said the plan was to let it burn itself out, and that forecasted rains over the weekend would help. The fire is said to cover about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in Christchurch's Port Hills to the south of the city.

Fire officer Douglas Marshall told "Radio New Zealand" there had not been any significant flare-ups on Thursday and that his crew would monitor the situation closely overnight.

A helicopter pilot died in a crash while fighting the blaze earlier this week.

Hills are unusually dry

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.

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

Local resident 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!'"

Prime Minister Bill English took a helicopter flight over the scene and visited the Christchurch command centre on Thursday. He told journalists he had confidence in the performance of the firefighters dealing with the blaze and said the fires look "suspicious."

Such ferocious wildfires are rare in New Zealand as regular rainfall usually prevents them reaching the intensity seen in neighboring Australia.

aw/rt (AFP, AP, dpa)

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