A bush fire that destroyed a bach and shed and forced several residents to be evacuated in the Far North may have been deliberately lit.
A bach and a shed were destroyed by fire at Ahipara yesterday morning, but ground crews and four helicopters saved several homes that had been evacuated.
The alarm was raised at 1.24am, the fire consuming 5ha of bush and other vegetation on a steep hillside above the settlement before it was contained, some six or seven hours later.
About half a dozen homes off Gumfields Rd were evacuated, but all appeared to have been saved. Flames reached within a few metres of some of them, and the deck of one began burning. The flames were doused with one helicopter monsoon bucket of water.
Fire brigade crews and tankers from Ahipara, Kaitaia, Rangiputa, Broadwood, Karikari and Houhora responded, while four Salt Air helicopters shuttled back and forth from Te Kohanga (Shipwreck Bay) to pour water on the fire.
Ground crews were stationed on the road to Te Kohanga, where the fire was believed to have started, ready to respond if flames crossed the road, in which case more homes would have been threatened.
Fire safety officer Colin Kitchen said it was lucky the helicopters had arrived when they did. They took off from the Ahipara rugby field at 6.45am, by which time it was light enough for them to fly.
The wind, from the southeast, which was blowing into the fire as it made its way down the hill, had also worked out well, he said, adding that the outcome, both in terms of the fire's spread and property damage, could have been much worse.
The town's electricity had been turned off, and earthmoving machinery began arriving a little after 8am.
Kitchen said he expected ground crews to remain at the scene, dampening hot spots, for several days, although much of the terrain was very steep, in places almost sheer, which made ground access difficult.
A Fire and Emergency mobile command post was set up on Foreshore Rd, with a St John ambulance, which was not needed, parked nearby, while police manned a roadblock at the western end of Foreshore Rd.
By 10am the fire was effectively out, although helicopters were still dropping water on some areas showing smoke, and evacuated residents had not been allowed to return to their homes.
Principal rural fire officer, and incident controller, Myles Taylor said the location where the fire had started, on the side of the road to Te Kohanga, had been identified, and although the cause was not yet known he was 90 per cent certain it had been started maliciously or accidentally. The cause is being investigated.
"The quality of the people we have here is so good, I knew we would get a good run at it," he said.
"The early arrival of the helicopters helped too."
The day was not over for the scores of volunteers who had turned out though. Having been there since 1.30am, they would now clean their gear, get changed and go to work.
Meanwhile monitoring of the hillside over the next few days would include the use of a thermal imaging camera to check for hot spots.