WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Firefighters were battling flames in the hill suburbs of New Zealand's second-largest Thursday after a wildfire burned down 11 homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.
An increase in humidity was helping efforts although strong winds were also fanning the flames of the wildfire, which was spread over 1,800 hectares (4,400 acres) in Christchurch's Port Hills. A helicopter pilot who was a decorated soldier died in a crash while fighting the blaze Tuesday.
The mayors of Christchurch City and the adjacent Selwyn District declared a state of emergency Wednesday. 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 centers or with relatives.
"They need to look after one another, and make sure they have a place to go," 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 said police had ordered the evacuation of 400 homes while many others nearby were choosing to leave. About 130 firefighters were battling the blaze from the ground while crews in 14 helicopters and three planes were battling it from the air.
A new mountain bike park, the Christchurch Adventure Park, was threatened by the fire.
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.