A suspected firebug has a Far North town rallying together after a spate of suspicious fires put the community on a knife-edge.
Five suspicious fires in Ahipara in the past six weeks have thrust volunteer firefighters into the midst of vehicle and vegetation fires - including a wildfire that took six days to be completely contained - and an inferno that destroyed an elderly couple's loved home they built 60 years ago.
The two-storey house in Kaka St went up in flames in the early hours of February 11 and little more than the rear wall was still standing by the time Ahipara, Kaitaia, and Whangārei firefighters brought the fire under control.
Fire investigator Craig Bain said the fire had been deliberately lit.
Earlier on December 29 about 56ha of scrub and bush was torched in a blaze started on a ridge above the Ahipara township in the Gumfields Historic Reserve. The inferno forced the evacuation of up to 100 homes.
Ahipara chief fire officer Dave Ross said there had been a powerful community response to the fires.
"These fires put people on a knife-edge. But the community are owning it with their strong response. People want to know what is happening and how they can be involved to help."
Te Hiku Community Board member and Te Rarawa Rugby Club committee member Jaqi Brown said a hui on January 21 informed the community about emergency service beliefs that an arsonist was operating in the area.
"The response from everyone was, this has to stop. People are passionate about their home town. The tangata whenua and people who've moved to the area are coming together to make our small village a better place."
But they needed to get the small contingent of troublemakers onboard, Brown said.
"It's not about punishment. It's about what is going on there and with them and what can we do to turn that around."
As investigations into the fires continue, the community has shielded themselves from danger by refreshing a civil defence plan from eight years ago.
"We updated our phone tree so in a crisis people can get hold of one another to help keep each other safe," Brown said. "And still in the works are long-term fire prevention strategies - such as fire breaks and different planting."
Brown said the community was on high alert with residents keeping a close eye on suspicious behaviour using a "very active" Ahipara Facebook page to share information, photos and footage.
Security cameras in strategic locations where there are high levels of suspicious activity were being discussed between community members, the Far North Council and local police.
The intentions behind the latest community call to action echo the launch of Ahipara Aroha Inc - a group formed by a collective of community minded people during level 4 lockdown in April last year.
The residents' group provides a voice for community led development in the area as they work alongside existing groups including the Ahipara Coastal Patrol and the Takiwa Iwi group.
"At the end of the day we want to live in a place where we want to raise our children and that's why we do as much as we can to bring families together."
About 600 people attended the first Ahipara Movie and Market Night organised by Ahipara Aroha in January.
"We're building that community heart," Brown said of the collective effort by Ahipara community groups.
Basketball and tennis courts have been upgraded and a cricket pitch installed next to the popular Te Rarawa Rugby field to add to the multitude of healthy activities designed to keep people positively engaged and active within the community, Brown said.
"It's one way we try to keep people on a positive path."
Police, when contacted by the Northern Advocate, were not immediately aware of the spate of fires in the area.
But Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Dalzell, area investigations manager Mid and Far North Police, confirmed they were treating the Kaka St house fire as suspicious.
Dalzell said police will be liaising with fire investigators as part of their inquiries.
Anyone with information was asked to call police on 105 quoting the file number 210211/4915.