Evacuees from a Northland beachfront settlement have been told they won't be able to go home until Wednesday at the earliest as firefighters continue to battle the biggest blaze to hit the region in more than a decade.
As of Monday afternoon the fire had swept through more than 2000ha of the Kaimaumau wetland, north of Kaitaia, threatening an estimated 50 homes.
Eleven helicopters were at work with monsoon buckets on Monday in a bid to contain the fire and protect homes at Kaimaumau village, while bulldozers were clearing a 12-metre-wide firebreak north of the settlement.
Work had also started on a second firebreak closer to the homes.
About 30 families were evacuated on Sunday evening with most staying at Waiharara School. Ngāi Takoto has also offered the use of its marae.
Fire and Emergency NZ Northland manager Wipari Henwood met the evacuees on Monday night to tell them they won't be able to go home on Tuesday because the wind is forecast to continue blowing from the north, driving the flames towards the settlement.
On Wednesday the wind is expected to change to a westerly, which would push the fire safely towards the sea.
Monday afternoon's low humidity and gusty wind meant the helicopters were constantly "chasing their tails" as they put out spot fires ignited by flying embers.
Bulldozers were also cutting a firebreak across the northern side of the fire, Henwood said.
The fire is in a Department of Conservation reserve bordered to the west and north by avocado orchards and by the Kaimaumau settlement in the south.
The reserve protects the most significant wetland remaining in Northland and is home to a number of threatened species.
The fire started on Saturday afternoon off Norton Rd, between Waiharara and Kaimaumau.
It was under control by noon on Sunday, when it had covered roughly 250ha.
However, Henwood said the fire ''blew out'' late that evening and breached a trigger point about 7km north of Kaimaumau, which prompted FENZ, Civil Defence and police to call for an evacuation.
On Sunday night it had expanded from about 600ha to 2000ha.
Locals had successfully enacted their own emergency response plan, Henwood said.
Helicopters had come from as far away as Tauranga and Taupō and a specialist structure crew from Whangārei was assessing and protecting homes.
Ironically, firefighters were being hampered by one of the wettest springs in recent years, which had turned the area into an impassable swamp.
That meant the fire ground could not be accessed by fire trucks or ground crews.
The fire was burning ''straight across the top'' of dense scrub, grass and mānuka.
Henwood said the best method for fighting large vegetation fires was a combined attack from the air and by ground crews.
"But we can't do that in this case. Instead, we're playing cat and mouse. It's two steps forward and one step back.''
It has been reported that the fire was started by a burn-off.
Henwood said he could not confirm or deny if that was the cause until an investigation had been carried out.
The last major fire in the area, in 2009-10, took seven weeks to put out.
That was because the fire spread into underground peat, where it was extremely difficult to extinguish.
Henwood said there were initial concerns that could happen again, but it was now thought to be unlikely because the water table was so high the peat could not ignite.
He estimated the fire would take a week to put out and up to a month to mop up.
Among the evacuees at Waiharara School were Paddy Horne and Bernice Robson.
The couple left their Kaimaumau home at about 9pm on Sunday after getting advice from their local emergency response group via social media.
Robson said she grabbed Muffin the cat, Shadow the dog, and her husband.
Horne took his fishing boat.
''I wasn't going to leave that behind," he said.
They were offered a mattress in the school hall but slept in their van to keep their pets company.
Horne was full of praise for the "fantastic" response by firefighters, police and Civil Defence, as well as the school and the local community.
"They've provided a place to sleep, showers and food. They've been really helpful. You couldn't ask for anything more."
He had been allowed home for 15 minutes, under police escort, on Monday morning to check the house and make sure the gas and power were turned off.
Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis had also been to see them at the school.
Robson was philosophical about being forced from her home a few days before Christmas.
"You go through all sorts of things in life. This is just another experience."
Far North Mayor John Carter said the local emergency response group was doing a great job making sure the evacuees were looked after.
''The response by Fire, police, Civil Defence and the local community has been outstanding."
Carter had been told the cause was a burnoff but that had not been confirmed.
A fire permit is required at any time of year on the fire-prone Aupōuri Peninsula.
It was too early to say what damage had been done to the DOC reserve or whether native species had been affected.
Carter said he had visited the settlement on Monday morning and found the occupants of two homes were refusing to evacuate.
A smoke haze could be seen as far away as Kaitaia and fine white ash — like a Northland version of snow — was falling on Waiharara and at Rangiputa, on the other side of Rangaunu Harbour, where locals were on guard for embers carried on the wind.
The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation urged anyone in the Kaimaumau area who suffers from a respiratory condition to stay indoors as much as possible and keep windows closed.