Thousands who fled New Zealand wildfire able to return home

About 3,000 people who fled as a wildfire threatened a New Zealand town have been allowed to return home as firefighting conditions improved.

However, another 400 residents living in valleys near the fire were told to stay away.

Firefighters said they have gained the upper hand over the blaze thanks to favourable weather conditions.

The forest fire began nearly a week ago on the South Island and burned 2,300 hectares. It burned down one house and prompted evacuations.

Smoke rises from a wildfire in Wakefield, New Zealand (Newshub via AP)

“It’s a large fire, and the fact that we’re able to get residents back into Wakefield this afternoon is extremely positive news,” said civil defence minister Kris Faafoi.

He said residents who return need to be prepared to evacuate again if conditions change.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the fire as “extraordinary” and “fairly unprecedented”.

“The feedback that we’ve had from those who were at the frontline of this fire was that there was a real intensity to this fire, that the drought-like conditions they’re experiencing contributed to that,” she said.

About 190 firefighters, 10 helicopters and two planes were deployed to battle the fire. No significant rainfall is forecast in the area over the next two weeks, and authorities say they expect they will need to keep dampening down hotspots until March.

Authorities believe the fire was started by sparks from farm equipment.

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.

- Press Association

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