Police speak to people seen on walking track before Port Hills fire started

Investigators looking into the Port Hills fire have spoken to two people seen on a walking track prior to the blaze last week.   

The new information comes after nearby residents reported "suspicious activity" to police.

The fire is being treated as "unexplained" with investigators from Fire and Emergency and Police requesting images and video from the public taken in the half hour before and after flames were reported.  

A police spokesperson confirmed to Newshub staff have spoken with two people residents witnessed on a walking track moments before the Port Hills fire was noticed. 

Residents on Hoon Hay Valley Rd saw the pair near a walking track on the hill followed by witnessing smoke. Residents took photos as the car drove off and sent them to police.  

The spokesperson said that they have spoken to people on Hoon Hay Valley Road who witnessed the pair drive off as well as the people in the car. Police have also spoken others in the area. 

"It appears these people are all likely witnesses at this time," the spokesperson said. 

"Police are working through what they have said, as investigations are ongoing."

Senior Sergeant Roy Appley told reporters on Tuesday several residents had come to the police and reported "suspicious activity" they had seen on the first fire day.

He added three separate people came forward with good information and video footage of some form on Monday.

"While I can't absolutely say about the cause of the fire yet, what we do say is that if you've got suspicions about some activity that you're concerned about, please report it to the police as soon as possible," Appley said.

Appley said the investigation is considering all possibilities when it comes to the cause of the fire and while it is too early to determine, police are open-minded to the fact fires don't always start legitimately.

The Press reported last week that the fire appeared to have started metres from a public walking track in a pine forest replanted after the 2017 Port Hills fire.

However, police have not determined the exact location of where the fire started.

"I can't say absolutely where the origin of the fire is and because we haven't been able to discuss that in detail with our FENZ partners and investigators its really too early to say," Appley said.

Appley said it would be extremely disappointing if the fire was arson.

"This has caused a huge angst in the community. We are just so fortunate that on this occasion we are so fortunate that it hasn't cost any lives or any dwellings. We do know about the one container house so we are concerned about that.

"This is the sort of thing that just does not need to happen and unfortunately offenders rarely think about the impact that this is going to have on the community. Sadly, sometimes [they] may even get [a] kick out of doing this for that very reason."

Senior Sergeant Roy Appley said a number of residents have come to the police and reported "suspicious activity".
Senior Sergeant Roy Appley said a number of residents have come to the police and reported "suspicious activity". Photo credit: Newshub.

Firefighters are continuing their mammoth effort to extinguish the fire that has burnt through more than 650 hectares of land and destroyed one home. 

While the fire is contained, there are still dozens of hotspots in the area that crews are working to dampen. Incident Commander Steve Kennedy said 50 hotspots were identified on Tuesday morning but following good progress from firefighters, this has now been reduced to around 40.

"We are not out of the fire danger around the Canterbury area but up on the Worsley site… we have made really good progress and the fire conditions are looking favourable," Kennedy said.

He said FENZ will soon be looking at demobilising again. He said there were 100 staff on the ground on Tuesday and that number will likely be less on Wednesday.

Christchurch City and Selwyn District remain in a state of emergency and firefighting efforts are expected to run until at least Thursday. 

Firefighters working at the Port Hills on Tuesday, February 20.
Firefighters working at the Port Hills on Tuesday, February 20. Photo credit: Newshub.

Police reiterated their call for photos and videos.  

"We’d like to hear from anyone with photos or videos of the Port Hills between 1.30pm and 5:00pm on 13 February 2024," Canterbury Police said in a statement on February 15. 

"You can send them to us at 105.police.govt.nz, clicking 'Update Report'. Please reference the case number 240215/0394 and include where and what time the photos or videos were taken."