A colleague of two men who died when their helicopter plunged into the ocean off Northland hopes new standards will make fighting scrub fires safer.

Five years after the deaths of pilot John "Prickles" de Ridder, 69, and William Macrae, 54, who died when their helicopter plunged into the sea on November 30 in 2011 off Karikari Beach during a firefighting operation, a coroner has released his findings.

Coroner Brandt Shortland yesterday issued his findings into the deaths, saying the loss of lives was unnecessary.

"These men lost their lives trying, in some way, to help others," Mr Shortland said.

Advertisement

He said there had been confusion in terms of communications, chaos and possible misinterpretation of the available information until command and control was established over fighting the suspicious blaze.

The suspicious scrub fire at Karikari Peninsula in 2011. William Macrae and John de Ridder died when their helicopter plunged into the sea while trying to assess the scrub fire situation.
The suspicious scrub fire at Karikari Peninsula in 2011. William Macrae and John de Ridder died when their helicopter plunged into the sea while trying to assess the scrub fire situation.

He said the deaths highlighted the need to have an extra level of safety in the overall planning strategy when using helicopters to fight fires.

The pair died when they went to assess the situation of people trapped on a beach by advancing flames, who had called 111.

"I accept there was emotional pressure brought to bear on the New Zealand Fire Service operator from those on the beach using the 111 emergency calls. These calls were stressful, resulting in a building up of emotional pressure and anxiety," Mr Shortland said.

Far North principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor was at the Karikari fire when his mates lost their lives. He had worked alongside the experienced duo on many fires across Northland.

On reading the coroner's report, Mr Taylor said since the deaths there had been a change in the way scrub fires were tackled in the region.

"There is a huge responsibility on our shoulders to move forward and keep getting better," he said.

New standards coming into force in September make the point that air operations function through an incident controller personally, which was the issue in the Karikari tragedy.

The standards also stress the importance of effective communication between the air division operation and the incident.

"The development of these standards is a huge step forward and many of the things it recommends we have already implemented in Northland," Mr Taylor said.

"We now have a robust risk-assessment policy for daytime and night-time operations, which includes using aircraft."

No one had been held accountable for the suspicious scrub fire that spread to a nearby beach, the coroner said.

These men lost their lives trying, in some way, to help others.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

Mr de Ridder had flown over the fire with a monsoon bucket at 8.22pm but stopped when conditions grew too dangerous.

Panicked residents trapped on the beach began phoning emergency services.

A decision was made to take to the air an hour later for what was believed to be a reconnaissance flight.

"Flying conditions had deteriorated to the point where Prickles had made a decision that he would no longer fly with the monsoon bucket as it was too windy and conditions were dangerous. It was at that point that he was contacted to pick up Mr Macrae so they could have a further look at the fire. It was accepted they were initially planning a reconnaissance flight," Mr Shortland said.

"It is also at that point they had received, obviously, information that people were still trapped on the beach. It was getting dark. It was smoky and it was well known that Prickles did not like to fly in smoke as it was simply dangerous. However, these two very experienced men, in a 6 to 8-minute discussion whilst they sat on the ground in the helicopter, must have considered all of those factors and then decided it was safe enough to have a look at the situation."

The coroner said it was more than likely that as they started towards the beach the flying conditions were acceptable.

But that changed dramatically with smoke rolling back which made flying conditions treacherous, resulting in the crash.