Major New Zealand wildfire expected to burn for weeks

A large wildfire in New Zealand is expected to keep burning for weeks but has moved away from some inhabited areas, according to authorities, raising hopes that residents of an evacuated village will be able to soon return home.

About 3,000 inhabitants of Wakefield, just outside Nelson at the top of South Island, were ordered out on  Saturday as flames razed bushland within two kilometres of their homes.

The fire erupted early last week amid scorching conditions in the heavily forested area and by early Monday had swept through an estimated 2,300 hectares.

So far one home has been destroyed by the fire and there have been no reported deaths or injuries.

About 190 firefighters, 10 helicopters and two planes have been deployed to battle the fire.

Fire chief John Sutton said that although conditions had eased, the blaze remained unpredictable and it was too early to say it was under control.

“There’s still an enormous amount of heat there and there’s a lot of unburned areas,” he told reporters. “So although we might be turning a corner, there will be firefighters working on that fire until well into March.”

No significant rainfall is forecast in the area over the next two weeks.

About 190 firefighters have been deployed to battle the fire [Chad Sharman/New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via Reuters]

Civil Defence regional chief Roger Ball said Wakefield residents could return home as early as Monday evening but the area was still under a state of emergency.

“Returning residents need to understand and accept that they need to be prepared to evacuate again if conditions change,” he said.

He said residents of valleys outside the village, which are much closer to the fire front, would have to remain in emergency accommodation until further notice.

The main fire is believed to have been accidentally started by farm equipment, although there have also been two minor blazes which police said were deliberately lit.

Australia and New Zealand have been experiencing a hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

Australia sweltered through its hottest month on record in January and there have been wildfires razing the south and flooding in the tropical north. New Zealand’s weather has not been as extreme, although it did experience a heatwave over the last few days of January.

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