A "combustible" Northland coastal community could be sent up in flames by dumped household waste being deliberately lit.
The threat of a potential inferno was pointed out by frustrated Ruakākā volunteer firefighters tired of attending arson-related wildfires in the hard-to-reach pine forest located between the Ruakākā Pipeline Road Track and the beach.
Ruakākā chief fire officer Darrell Trigg described areas on the unofficial track, which is popular with the public, as an "absolute shambles".
"We quite often get called down to rubbish fires and people causing havoc," he said.
Trigg described havoc as parties, arson and illegal dumping.
Fridges, large heavy-vehicle tyres, washing machines, spray cans and other waste discarded among dried out shrubs, long grass and a pine forest make the area vulnerable to a blaze that could spread to the size of almost seven rugby fields.
"They are endangering their own lives and the lives of others playing with fire in such a combustible environment," Trigg said.
"What people don't understand is that fire moves incredibly fast. The fires in Australia moved at 200km/h and caught people trying to escape in their cars."
At 6am on Wednesday last week, Ruakākā firefighters were called to a fire in the area - about 6sq m - that was lit between four loader-wheel tyres and had spread to nearby trees.
Large plumes of thick black smoke coming from the pine trees about 3km south of Marsden Pt refinery were spotted by local Paul Goffin as he walked his dogs on the beach.
"I phoned the fire brigade to report it and by the time they arrived it had become quite a large fire," Goffin said.
Firefighters had to park their truck a 15-minute walk from the blaze because the vehicle was too large to access the location.
Equipped with shovels, the volunteers controlled the burn by surrounding it with sand and then waited for the Maungakaramea fire brigade to arrive with a four-wheel-drive to tackle the fire. The callout lasted three hours.
Trigg expressed frustration at people lighting fires during dry, hot weather conditions and in locations firefighters were unable to access with a truck.
"The last thing we need to be doing is getting to incidents like this, when there are other people who urgently need a hand, but this is still what we are there for," he said.
A group of longtime residents have spent more than a year attempting to find out who is responsible for resolving the hazard.
Eric Woodward, a Ruakākā local for 30 years, said he had approached Whangārei District Council, Northland Regional Council, the Department of Conservation and police to assist in the clean-up.
"They are all just washing their hands of it. One says it's the responsibility of the other, and on it goes with no answers," he said.
"All we are asking for is help to make people respect the beach."
It's understood the property was landbanked due to then owners Mercury Energy - previously Mighty River Power - selling it to the Crown about four years ago.
Landbanked properties mean Mäori have the opportunity to indicate particular surplus properties are important to them and may be a valued part of a future Treaty settlement. Such properties may be bought by the Office of Treaty Settlements and held in a landbank until they may be required for use in a settlement.
The Office of Treaty Settlements and police did not respond to questions by edition time.
Both WDC and NRC said they have no authority over the land as it did not belong to them.
If the WDC were to act, spokeswoman Ann Midson said there would be the major issue of using ratepayers' money on private property, which could become extremely difficult territory to navigate.
A DoC spokeswoman said despite not being responsible for the land - as it was not conservation-administered land - they were working in collaboration with Ruakākā police to prevent future fires occurring.
"We agreed that although not on conservation land, the dumped rubbish still presents a risk to the entire area so have been using our joint resources/contacts to try to establish who this land is managed by and encourage them to tidy the area up."
Apart from flammable fly-tipping, locals say vehicles on beaches in breach of the Control Of Vehicles On Beaches 2009 bylaw was another problem they are being forced to police themselves.
Residents Keith Richardson, Eric Woodward and Yvonne Jackson described people spitting in their faces, drivers charging at them with their vehicles, being sworn at, and threats of violence in their bid to fix issues.
"This beach is a treasure. If we don't care for it, who does?" Woodward said.
Polite attempts to address people breaching the bylaws often resulted in tense altercations and on one occasion almost boiled over into a physical clash, according to Woodward.
Woodward said police had advised him not to confront people but in his view, he's helping to educate people "like DoC's approach".
It was not uncommon for locals to establish their own fences and chains across illegal access points to the beach but they were "destroyed within days", Richardson said.
The group advocated that the district and regional councils, DoC and Northland police achieve better management of vehicles disregarding the driving ban on a portion of the beach north of where the rubbish fires occurred.
The Control Of Vehicles On Beaches 2009 bylaw gave police the authority to respond to incidents on the beach the same way they would on a road.
Vehicles are banned at all times between the Ruakākā Surf Club and a point 500m north of Marsden Village, including both sides of the Ruakākā River mouth. People can face fines of up to $20,000 if caught.
The bylaw also prohibits any vehicles on the dunes - which Richardson said was a huge issue with half a dozen illegal beach access points created by vehicles within a 5km stretch.
Midson said the key to safety was for people to remember beaches were shared spaces.
"If they collide everyone loses, so it is important to know the rules and follow them."
DoC shared the locals' concern, describing vehicles on beaches as a "huge issue".
A DoC spokeswoman said they have increased patrols, public awareness campaigns, and are handing out fines to people found breaking the rules as part of this year's summer campaign in Bream Bay to "make a difference in this behaviour".
A security company and Patuharakeke will be stationed at the Tip Rd carpark in Uretiti.
"They will speak to the public before they drive on to the beach and will be handing out a very clear publication showing where vehicles cannot go."
But Ruakākā residents believed more needed to be done.
"People are ripping out fences to get their vehicles on to the beach. The wheels used in the fires were supposed to stop them driving through but instead they just busted through another way. Education isn't working, we need more," Woodward said.
Rules for vehicles on beaches:
• All road rules apply on beaches
• The beach belongs to everyone - share with care
• Drive slowly and carefully near other beach users
• Check speed limits - most beaches are 30km/h
• Watch out for vehicles and supervise children closely
• Keep vehicles off dunes
• Drive to the conditions
• Avoid shorebirds and other wildlife