Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Escape from Far North inferno

The scrubfire destroyed at least three dwellings as well as other buildings and cars and boats. Photo / Dean Purcell
The scrubfire destroyed at least three dwellings as well as other buildings and cars and boats. Photo / Dean Purcell

A couple who braved thick smoke and flying embers to escape a fast-moving "inferno" coming towards their Far North bach have spoken of the terrifying moments when they thought they were going to die.

And they have told how their relief at hearing the sound of a helicopter they thought would rescue them turned to anguish as it plunged into the sea nearby.

Robert Brown and Jacqui Pont built their bach on the Karikari Peninsula from the ground up and were horrified on Wednesday night to hear that a fire was threatening to destroy it.

The couple, who live in Kaitaia, had gone to the peninsula to collect shellfish for an event at the weekend when they saw smoke billowing into the sky.

They wept as they stood at a vantage point overlooking the fire-ravaged Matai Bay area yesterday and described their escape.

"We saw the fire and it was just a little fire," Ms Pont said. "But by the time we'd called 111 it was the size of half a football field.

Five minutes later, it was the size of a whole football field and the wind was so strong."

Mr Brown decided to go and try to protect the bach, but soon changed his mind. "The heat was too much and we had to head for the beach."

At that stage the couple, who live on the top of a hill above the beach, did not realise how close the fire was to their bach, which they lived in for several years before moving into town.

They took the gas bottles and generators from it to prevent explosions and headed down the hill to where several of Mr Brown's cousins live.

"We thought, 'Oh, we'll be safe here on the beach'," Mr Brown said. "But then all of a sudden, the fire came up over the hill. It just came over so quickly and there were flames and debris flying at us. The smoke was unbelievable."

Ms Pont said there were several boats down by the water, but they were either out of fuel or too small to hold her, Mr Brown, three of his cousins and their four dogs.

They scrambled to empty the fuel from the generators into a bottle so they could fill the tank on a dinghy.

They were trying to launch it when they heard a helicopter overhead.

"I thought, 'We're saved'," said Mr Brown. "We were waiting in a group, waiting for the helicopter to come through the smoke and save us."

Ms Pont said they could not see the helicopter, but were doing all they could to make sure the pilot saw them.

"We were just screaming and yelling, 'Please, please come and save us'.

"The fire was getting closer and we could feel the heat. The embers were still coming at us. It was so freaky, we were shouting, 'We're here, we're here'."

Mr Brown said: "I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe. Then, all of a sudden, we hear, 'Boom, boom, boom, boom'. Then a big 'ba-boom'.

"It was a noise I have never ever heard in my life. I first thought it was explosions in the houses up the hill. But then there was no chopper noise any more."

Ms Pont said she had two options - to go into the water or to die.

She began texting her daughters. "I was ... telling them we were okay, that everything was going to be all right. 'We'll see you tomorrow,' I said.

"But at that time, I didn't know if there was going to be a tomorrow for us. We just didn't want to worry them more than we had to."

Terrified and thinking they were about to die, the group managed to start the boat and headed out to sea. They were picked up by a commercial fishing vessel.

Mr Brown and Ms Pont later made their way back to their bach and found it had survived. At least three other dwellings were destroyed, as well as other buildings, some boats and cars.

The couple were haunted by the death of the two men in the helicopter. Ms Pont felt sick at the thought that the fire might have been deliberately lit.

"If someone started that fire on purpose, my God, how ruthless are they?

"Whoever and however that fire started, I hope they are feeling it now."

- NZ Herald

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