Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Firebug sparks emotional rollercoaster of feelings for Piha residents after a week of suspicious blazes

Fiona Anderson is furious and exhausted.

The Piha Domain Motor Camp manager has slept in her car at the camping ground every night since a destructive series of suspicious fires began being lit around the high-profile beach community a week ago.

Anderson, who is also a long time volunteer St John Ambulance first responder, is feeling "enormously vulnerable" and hasn't slept more than three hours in seven nights.

"This prick lighting fires, he's going to cost me $15,000. People won't want to come here."

That's the anger part.

The beach settlement of Piha, in West Auckland, has been rocked by a series of suspicious fires. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The beach settlement of Piha, in West Auckland, has been rocked by a series of suspicious fires. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Over the Piha stream, Melodie Batchelor has stayed in her bed.

But the night-time fires, which destroyed the popular fish and chip shop Adey's Place three doors away, were on her mind as she as she settled down to sleep each night.

"I'm trying not to [think about it], because you have to sleep ... but we are nervous."

That's the fear part.

At the other end of the beach, just below the Tasman Lookout, Julia Comer's son keeps asking why someone would burn down the fish and chip shop.

Three-year-old Jordie enjoyed a feed of chips and an ice block after pre-school a day before the fire, Comer said.

"The little guy was like 'why would they do this?'"

That's the confusion part.

But ask all what they would say to the person or persons responsible for the fires and the answer is the same.

Hand yourself in. Get some help.

That's the compassion part.

Series of suspicious fires

It started just over a week ago, when police were alerted to a number of small scrub fires on the Tasman View Track on Monday night.

Just over 24 hours later, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, another spate of fires was reported on the Marawhara Walk Track at North Piha.

Soon after, fire crews became aware of two more fires on Lion Rock and a third on the embankment at the intersection of Marine Parade South and Beach Valley Rd.

Later that day police described the fires as suspicious and appealed for help from the public.

The apparent firebug, or firebugs, took a break.

It was to be a brief respite.

The situation escalated with a vengeance overnight on Sunday.

Piha Domain Motor Camp manager Fiona Anderson is sleeping in her car after a week of suspicious fires in the beach settlement. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Piha Domain Motor Camp manager Fiona Anderson is sleeping in her car after a week of suspicious fires in the beach settlement. Photo / Jason Oxenham

A trio of suspicious fires were lit, one destroying Adey's Place and two more in the hills above Piha forcing one home to be evacuated and residents of others to go on standby.

Almost 100 firefighters were needed to battle the blazes.

Today, the police investigation was obvious to all - detectives crowded Adey's Place, marked police cars cruised past tourists and city-escapee surfers, and fire investigation utes were dotted around the town.

In a statement, police said a scene examination had been done, forensic investigations were underway and they were following leads.

Anyone with information was told to call Waitakere CIB on (09) 837 9511 or, anonymously, Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Police can expect a few calls. This community of around 600 permanent residents is watching.

Down at the camping ground, Anderson gives two reasons for sleeping in her car.

"I'm really, really concerned that, number one, I might get burnt to death sleeping in my own bed, no one wants that for themselves, but number two is that you know maybe this person walks through the camping ground."

The hardest realisation was that, she believed, the person or persons responsible were from the area.

"Their knowledge of the tracks, their knowledge of the area. This person is one of us."

Batchelor has also heard much talk about the fires - a mixed blessing.

"Everybody's got a story and that's really good, because we have to share those stories. We all want to know things.

"But on the other hand it sets up a bit of 'who did it, who's to blame?' It starts you being worried about anybody you don't know ... it's negative if it makes us perhaps think someone did it, when they didn't."

At The Store, owner Peter Chapman was today discouraging customers from sharing their thoughts on the subject.

Police at the charred remains today of Adey's Place in Piha. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Police at the charred remains today of Adey's Place in Piha. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The former volunteer firefighter would rather talk about how Auckland Council can take advantage of the fire on the hills behind Piha to build a reservoir for future fire-fighting efforts.

"Hey bro, let's be tight, look out for each other and report anything you perceive as suspicious."

Up on Beach Valley Rd, Piri Wano described the fires as an "abuse" that she feared could turn deadly.

"They're abusing our home. They could kill somebody, ay?"

And yet, if not for increase in emergency services' uniforms in the town and the charred remains of Adey's, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the community has to fear is a change in the weather.

Across Piha's famously baking hot sand, the sea is sparkling.

It's a near bluebird afternoon as surfers bob over the 1.5-2 metre swell and two dozen or so souls on the shore enjoy vast stretches of beach to themselves.

It's a pearl of a day.

But then the night comes.

- NZ Herald

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