Crisis plan for suspicious fires

By Hayley Hannan, Russell Blackstock

The wreckage of Squirrel helicopter ZK-IMB is recovered from the sea off the Karikari Peninsula. Photo / Civil Aviation Authority
The wreckage of Squirrel helicopter ZK-IMB is recovered from the sea off the Karikari Peninsula. Photo / Civil Aviation Authority

Firefighters are coming up with a contingency plan after a string of suspicious fires ravaged Northland areas over the past 18 months.

The latest inferno spread across 130ha of tinder-dry bush on the Karikari Peninsula last week, leaving three homes, 15 buildings and many cars and boats as charred remains.

Pilot John de Ridder and Department of Conservation ranger William Macrae died when the helicopter they were in crashed about 350m off the coast of the peninsula on Wednesday night as they tried to fight the blaze.

The fire, which police are treating as suspicious, began on the Karikari Peninsula, about 2 hours north of Whangarei, on Wednesday and patches were still smouldering yesterday.

It is reportedly the 14th suspicious fire in the area over the past 18 months.

Kaitaia fire chief Colin Kit night said the fires could be the work of a serial firebug.

"I believe a good number of these fires are deliberate and could be connected." Police were still investigating what had caused the fire and where it started, said National Rural Fire Authority incident controller Bryan Jensen.

He said firefighters yesterday stepped back to let increasing rainfall over the area run its course.

A single crew patrolling the area had been pulled out of the field about 11.30am.

"We're getting steady rain and that's just superb, because that's what we needed. We're quite happy just to pack off for a wee while at the moment and let the rain do its job," Mr Jensen said.

Up to 40mm of rain was forecast for the area yesterday.

He said fire services were focusing on the smouldering hot spots dotted across the fireground, mainly around the perimeter and 50m from the edge of the peninsula.

Mr Jensen said the team was looking to help develop ways to deal with fires in the area given the high number of blazes.

"We're assisting to look at some wider planning of contingency measures for the wider region given the number of fires that exist across the region that have yet to be declared out."

The next step would be to use aerial thermal cameras to identify any hot spots, while the overall efforts would be scaled back over the next few days, he said.

Meanwhile, the wreckage of the Squirrel ZK-IMB helicopter recovered from the sea at Karikari will be taken to Auckland Airport for CAA accident investigators to inspect it.=

- APNZ

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