Residents flee raging New Zealand fires

The crowd at Hope Community Church wait to hear the latest information on the Tasman district forest fire

Early on Sunday, 155 firefighters were battling the blaze on the ground with air support from 23 helicopters and three fixed wing planes, making it the largest aerial firefight on record in New Zealand.

Fires started on Monday and Tuesday and quickly spread.

About 3 000 people who fled as a wildfire threatened a New Zealand town were allowed to return home on Monday as firefighting conditions improved. The forest fire began almost a week ago on the South Island and burned 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres).

The regional police commander, Zane Hooper, confirmed they had successfully completed "the orderly evacuation of Wakefield", while fire chief John Sutton said the critical danger point could come on Sunday.

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Authorities believe that the fire was caused by a spark from agricultural machinery, with much of the affected area south of Nelson used for forestry, but also home to many small farms.

"There's still an enormous amount of heat there are and there are a lot of unburned areas", he said. "So although we might be turning a corner, there will be firefighters working on that fire until well into March".

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

"When you have to leave your home and in some cases your livestock and animals and you don't know what's become of them, and you're staying with friends and family, then it's an uncertain situation for everybody", she told Reuters by telephone. The New Zealand Drought Index reports "extremely dry" conditions in the Nelson area, which has reportedly been parched since November 2018.

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