A Northland conservationist has described the Kaimaumau fire in Northland's largest surviving wetland as a ''tragedy of national significance''.
While it's too early to say if any threatened species have died in the blaze — the site is difficult to access due not just to the fire but, ironically, to unusually swampy conditions — the scale and intensity of the fire make it seem likely.
Forest & Bird Northland conservation manager Dean Baigent-Mercer said Kaimaumau was nationally significant and the largest wetland left in Northland.
It was home to endangered species of native birds, mudfish, plants and lizards, including a gecko and an unnamed orchid found only in the Far North.
Those species included the Australasian bittern or matuku, whose conservation status is described as nationally critical — the same status as the vanishingly rare kākāpō.
''Over the past decades, this significant wetland has been under attack from drains dug around edges, illegal swamp kauri mining, illegal wetland conversion to farmland, peat mining applications and applications for huge water extraction for avocados. And now fire,'' he said.
''It's past time we gave Kaimaumau a break, blocked up the drains and give appropriate respect and protection.''
Baigent-Mercer called for a full investigation into the cause of the fire followed by appropriate legal action.
The fire was a tragedy on a national scale, he said.
''The loss can be compared to the great bushfires of Australia in recent years. Calling it a 'scrub fire' would miss the point. This fire has incinerated vital native habitat with endangered native species and released CO2 into the atmosphere. We have so little of these habitats left that protection of wetlands needs to national priority.''
''If Northland was the world, then Kaimaumau would be one of the seven wonders of the natural world,'' he said.
According to a report prepared by Wildland consultants for the Northland Regional Council in 2011, the Motutangi-Kaimaumau wetland was home to 12 threatened species, 14 at-risk species, and four regionally significant species.
When Wildland ranked 255 Northland wetlands by importance, Kaimaumau was beaten to first place only by the Pouto Dune System in Kaipara.
The wetlands were ranked on a variety of factors including size, quality, rarity, threatened and significant species, and hydrological integrity.
Department of Conservation spokeswoman Abigail Monteith said the organisation's present focus was on supporting the fire response, so it was too early to say how much habitat had been lost.
The wetland — which stretched 11km from the mouth of Rangaunu Harbour near Kaimaumau, north-west to Motutangi, south of Houhora Heads — was the only remaining freshwater wetland in Northland with an area greater than 1000ha.
Its outstanding conservation values were partially protected in 1984 when 955ha was designated a scientific reserve.
An additional area of wetland, as well as dunes forming its seaward margin, were partially protected as a 2312ha conservation area.
Concern about potential effects on the wetland is the main reason DoC has appealed a consent granted this year allowing the Aupouri Aquifer Water Users Group to draw 4.5 million cubic metres of water a year from the aquifer.