Northland's biggest fire in decades has cost more than $7 million to fight — and it might not be over yet.
An Official Information Act request by the Advocate shows the firefighting costs to March 22, covering the first three months of the Kaimaumau fire north of Kaitāia, totalled $7,023,231.
By far the largest share - $4,477,619 - was spent on "aerial services", or helicopters.
At the peak of the fire 11 helicopters fitted with monsoon buckets and an underbelly tank were in the air at once. Up to 80 firefighters were working on the ground, along with bulldozers and diggers.
Hiring external firefighting services from forestry companies and the Department of Conservation, as well as heavy machinery and water tankers, cost more than $1.2m.
The other major costs were employee overtime and travel reimbursements ($335,000), volunteer payments for travel and meal costs ($237,000) and equipment hire ($220,000).
Other expenses included $134,000 for firefighting foam and $19,600 in laundry bills.
The blaze, which started on December 18 off Norton Rd, on the southwestern edge of the Kaimaumau wetland, covered more than 2800ha.
It was initially reported to have been started by a burn-off.
Firefighters were hampered by high temperatures and strong winds, particularly when Cyclone Cody hit in January.
Kaimaumau, a settlement of about 50 homes south of the wetland, was evacuated twice as flames approached. Later, as the fire shifted north, residents at Motutangi had to leave their homes.
No homes were lost and only one firefighter is known to have been injured.
While underground peat is likely to continue burning for months yet, Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) ended its firefighting operation in early February. Future flare-ups may still occur if the peat re-ignites vegetation above ground.
FENZ is continuing to examine the cause of the fire.
Risk reduction and investigations manager Todd O'Donoghue said the investigation would be thorough and would take all contributing factors into account.
"Until this investigation is complete, we cannot release or comment on any of our findings to date. We are working hard to have the investigation completed as soon as possible," he said.
The Kaimaumau wetland is — or was — Northland's largest surviving wetland and an important habitat for threatened species such as geckos, native orchids and birds.
At the time Forest & Bird Northland conservation manager Dean Baigent-Mercer called the fire "a tragedy on a national scale".
It is the only wetland left in Northland bigger than 1000ha.
Just over 950ha is designated a scientific reserve while another 2312ha is protected as a conservation area.
■ The law change which created Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) in 2017 also made it much harder to recover firefighting costs. Before July 1, 2017, the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977 provided a statutory right to recover the costs of fire suppression from those responsible for starting fires. However, the new law, The Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act 2017, does not give FENZ any such statutory right. FENZ could use common law rights of recovery, based for example on negligence, but that requires a much higher threshold of fault by the alleged fire-starter.
Since the new law came into effect on July 1, 2017, FENZ has not tried to recover the costs of fighting any rural fires in Northland. Until the Kaimaumau fire, the most expensive rural fire in Northland during the FENZ era occurred on Giles Rd, Horeke, in January 2019. The total cost of putting out that fire was $650,599.
One of the most expensive fires before the law change was in White Cliffs forest, Horeke, in November 2011. That blaze was started by cycle trail contractors burning cut vegetation and also cost about $650,000, not counting the value of pine trees destroyed.
FENZ is funded mainly by a levy on insurance policies which include cover for fire risk.