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

Burning suspicions

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

As Karikari locals survey the damage caused by Wednesday's fatal bushfire, questions are arising over who is to blame

It's early Wednesday evening on the Karikari Peninsula and trouble is brewing. Residents go about their daily lives, blissfully unaware that within hours life will be forever changed - and with fatal consequences.

Another day in the idyllic winterless north is starting to fade, the tide is low, and as long-term resident Leni Mutu says, they were enjoying the peace they lived there for.

"It's one of the last of the peaceful places left in lovely New Zealand. We love the peace," he said.

All it took was one spark, and that peace was shattered.

Fast forward to 4.30pm Thursday. From a helicopter flying low over the tip of the peninsula, the damage is clear - a smouldering scar on the once-beautiful landscape.

About 128ha of land is destroyed. Houses, baches, cars, boats and sheds are transformed into warped piles of smoking debris.

Trees once green and abundant are little more than blackened twigs. The earth is charred, and covered in piles of grey ash. Roadways are burnt out and the only colour is specks of yellow - firefighters hard at work dampening down hot spots.

Flames are still latching on to what little living bush is left. Firefighters have the fire contained by mid-Thursday and the wind is blowing in their favour. Less than 24 hours later the danger is over. But the damage is irreparable.

MATAI BAY Rd runs up to a private dirt track. The track is on Maori land owned by a group who call themselves Whanau Moana. It's unclear how many permanent residents live on the land, but many others have baches there, most just simple shacks.

Mr Mutu was at home when the fire broke out on the eastern side of the peninsula. "I just saw a plume of smoke no bigger than what you would expect to see out of a drum with burning rubbish," he said.

"Then my wife said 'honey you better come and have a look at this' and I could see where the fire was. I called 111. The wind was blowing hard, easterly. The flames just whipped through the manuka trees. It was moving really quickly, it was unbelievable, horrible."

On the other side of the peninsula Robert Brown and his partner Jacqui Pont, who own a bach on the hill, were collecting shellfish. They too saw the smoke and called 111. Then they ran to check their property.

They decided to stay to protect their bach, but soon the heat became too much and they headed for the safety of the beach below.

Across the way, Mr Mutu was staying put. He had no intention of leaving and was hunkered down, ready for whatever was coming his way.

"It was 300m from our place. But sometimes, you have to have a bit of faith. It's no use asking the divine one for help and then not believing in him."

Other residents, including Doris Busby, were making a run for their lives as emergency services hurtled towards Matai Bay. Mrs Busby was in her house when she saw the smoke. She got into her car and drove as fast as she could to safety. "At least I managed to get out of there, that's the main thing. I just took off."

The inferno spread across a 130ha area of tinder-dry bush, taking with it at least three homes, 15 buildings and many cars and boats. It incinerated everything it passed.

Things were becoming dire as Mr Brown and his family desperately looked for a way to safety. Going back up the hill was no longer an option, and the boats they had access to were either too small for all of them, or had no fuel.

Then, just as hope was fading, they heard the sound of hope - a helicopter. "I thought, we're saved," Mr Brown said. "We were waiting in a group, waiting for the helicopter to come through the smoke and save us. We couldn't see it but we just knew they were there to save us. I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe.

"Then, all of a sudden we hear boom, boom, boom, and 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 anymore."

When they realised help was no longer coming, they decided they had to go to the water. They realised the generators they had taken from their home when they fled had fuel that they could empty into their dinghy.

All the residents of the Karikari Peninsula who were on the ground that day survived and no one was injured. But two much loved sons of the area gave up their lives in a rescue attempt. The booming sound had indeed been a helicopter crashing into the sea. On the Squirrel ZK-IMB were veteran pilot John "Prickles" de Ridder and Department of Conservation ranger William Macrae.

They had been helping fight the fire when they were apparently requested by authorities to divert to the beach to get residents out of harm's way. They never made it.

The fire, said by one resident to be the fourth on the peninsula since February, has been called suspicious by authorities. As community members try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, they have started asking questions like why and who?

It began by the roadside just up the private road and has sparked rumours in the tightknit community.

Speculation is rife. Was it arson? Is there a firebug? Does someone have it in for the Maori land-owners and are they trying to "burn them out"? Does someone have a grudge? Is it someone after the land? Is there in-fighting within Whanau Moana?

No one wants to speculate, but no one is denying anything either. There are problems and issues on the peninsula, but no one is willing to talk specifics.

The Weekend Herald was told the landowners had been threatened by a man before Wednesday. He had, apparently, threatened them with fire. Mr Mutu said that was the case and the police had the details.

He agreed there were issues, but said it was the same in any family. He would not be drawn to say more, but denied any wrongdoing by those who live on the peninsula.

"Sure, there's speculation that someone has done this, but as a whanau, we don't burn our land. We would never do that. It's precious and we want it to stay like that.

"We've all spoken and we just cannot imagine it of anyone. We are helping the police. Whoever did it, we will kick them to Kingdom Come and then we will hand them over to police."

Police remain tight-lipped over the investigation. Security at the entry point to the private road said it was a crime scene, but police say they haven't got that far yet.

It has been quite a week for Northland District Commander Superintendent Russell Le Prou, whose first day in his new job was Tuesday. For him, the focus is finding out how the fire began. "We are looking for evidence of whether the fire was deliberately lit or an accident. We think we have an idea of the general vicinity where it started."

Fire investigators and detectives would make their way up there, once all the hot spots have been dampened. Other officers will work with locals to glean as much information as possible about problems, issues and possible suspects.

He's aware that in such a small community, and within a family, information may not be forthcoming. But he is appealing to anyone with information, or a confession, to put their hand up. "We want to be able to sit around the table with the families of those two brave New Zealanders who died, and give them answers."

The Karikari community is also feeling for those affected and those grieving. One man said some were outraged at the thought of an arsonist living among them.

"I think there are a few pretty pissed-off people. Those two fellas have gone and it's a waste. And all for a whole lot of tea-tree," he said.

"It's pretty hard to put into words. But I hope they catch them and they deal to them with the law, hard."

Another man said locals had started to speculate about a firebug living among them after a fire in the area several weeks ago.

He was yet to return to his home on the peninsula after being evacuated on Wednesday night and stood at a vantage point along the coast, surveying the damage to the cape from a safe distance. As he looked out to sea, where two markers - orange and black - floated above the spot where the chopper went down, he said: "They're only out there trying to help us. They wouldn't have had to help if there wasn't a mongrel out there lighting the things".

Frances Lisle's brother and cousins live in the area. She stood and watched helplessly on Wednesday night as the fire ravaged the tinder-dry coast. "It was frightening to watch really. My main concern was my brother, nephew and cousins. Once they were rescued, I was fine.

"Houses are just houses and things are just things. But it's really horrible and sad to know two people have lost their lives trying to protect others and their property."

Far North District Council spokesman Richard Edmondson said it was early days in terms of the investigation, but one thing was for sure - the fire did not start itself. "We are treating it as suspicious. Whether it's malicious, someone burning rubbish, someone with a barbecue or something else, it's illegal."

On Tuesday, a day before the fire, the council upgraded its heavily restricted fire rule to a total ban. No fires, for any reason, at all.

Two weeks ago, when the only fires allowed were by permit, another suspicious fire broke out along Matai Bay Rd - about a kilometre from Wednesday's blaze.

Mr Edmondson was reluctant to speculate about a firebug in the area - but was blunt when asked if the fires were, or could be, linked. "We have to ask the question. It's tempting to make a connection between them. It is amazing that aside from the fatal helicopter crash, there are no other injuries to speak of."

Everyone who lives on and was on the peninsula when the blaze ignited is safe and accounted for and most houses were spared. But the problem is broader, and has prompted local authorities to come down hard.

Every summer there is a major fire in the area and every summer the same dedicated fire crews leave their jobs, their families and their lives to battle flames and protect the property of others. "It poses a huge cost on us as a district, and us as a country. We're talking about millions of dollars spent on fighting these fires," Mr Edmondson said.

But there is also a human cost. Fifty firefighters from the Fire Service, Department of Conservation and the council, as well as volunteers from local forestry companies, downed tools and headed to the peninsula on Wednesday night.

"One of the biggest impacts these fires have is they take up an enormous amount of human resources. Putting aside the actual cost of fighting the fires, one of the biggest costs is to the hundreds of people who are taken out of their jobs for the day or longer.

"That impacts on productivity, on organisations and on those who employ firefighters."

The result - firefighters are fighting back. They are now trying to recoup their costs from anyone found to be the cause of the fires.

"If you light a fire and it gets out of control and we have to come and put it out - we will be billing you for that," Mr Edmondson said.

The fire has changed the Karikari Peninsula for ever. The grass may grow again and new trees sprout up, but there has been a deep loss.

For Leni Mutu the most important thing is remembering the men who died and getting answers for their families. "The thing that really hurts us the most as a whanau is that two people gave their lives coming to help us. That has really hurt us.

"Our condolences go out to their families. We really feel their pain.

"We have lost nothing. They are only things. It's too sad."

- NZ Herald

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