What started as a bid to prevent fires in South Hokianga has morphed into an ambitious waka-building project for Horeke youth.
The innovative scheme, which has the blessing of master waka builder Hekenukumai (Hec) Busby, sprang from a series of major scrub and forest fires.
With their usual fire prevention methods not working, rural fire bosses realised they would have to become part of the Horeke community to have any chance of success.
Northern deputy principal rural fire officer Clinton Lyall said fighting fires in the Horeke area had cost more than $1 million in the past three years. One blaze alone, in White Cliffs Forest, scorched 350ha and cost $650,000 to put out.
Horeke residents were not doing anything different to other Far Northerners but the consequences were more serious because of the area's dry summers and flammable scrub and forest.
The idea of building a waka sprang from a chance meeting with one of Mr Busby's nephews.
Mr Lyall said the long-term project was a way of getting involved in the community for the right reasons.
The foundations were set last Wednesday when Mr Busby inspected and blessed a disused rural fire base just outside Horeke which will be converted into a waka workshop. The building could also serve as a youth centre.
"The idea is to get away from a focus on fires. We'll really be targeting youth and getting them involved."
Mr Lyall hoped the waka tete (a single-hulled waka that can be paddled by men and women) would be ready within two years.
Renowned international sailor Peter Goss, now based in Kerikeri, had started fundraising but they still needed a suitable kauri or totara log. The waka would be more meaningful if the log was gifted, Mr Lyall said.
Rural Fire expected to be heavily involved for the first five years of the 15-year project. It would then pull back and allow the community to take over.
Mr Lyall said he was prepared for cynics questioning how building a waka could solve a problem with fires.
"Other methods up to now haven't been successful. Fires are still increasing and the risks are getting higher. We have to do something," he said. Mr Lyall apologised to Horeke residents who had not been informed before last week's visit by Mr Busby. The project had gained momentum so quickly they had been unable to inform everyone properly. "We don't want to impose ourselves on the community," he said.