Lighting an open fire in parts of Northland from Saturday could land those who spark the blaze a minimum $800 bill as fire authorities warn they will send a helicopter out at the first sign of smoke as the region's fire risk soars.
The warning comes after firefighters spent several days dousing a suspicious blaze at Pouto, south of Dargaville, and managed to save a pine plantation south of Kaikohe from another suspicious fire.
However, the Northern Rural Fire Authority, which is in charge of the fire-prone Far North, is holding off with imposing a total fire ban. Principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said the fire danger was approaching "tipping point" but he was keeping his options open in case rain arrived in the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, no new fire permits would be issued. Anyone who already held a permit had been informed that every fire would be treated as unpermitted after Friday.
A restricted fire season, which means a permit is required for any fire other than barbecues or hangi, has been in force in the Far North since December 8. Whangarei/Kaipara followed on January 10. From Saturday, Mr Taylor said fire trucks and a helicopter would be dispatched at the first sign of smoke in the Far North at the firestarter's cost. If it was windy two helicopters would be sent.
The cost of operating a helicopter is about $2000 an hour. Even if the chopper was not needed a callout cost about $800. Fighting fires in the Far North over last summer cost slightly less than $500,000, while the cost of fighting a large fire at Pouto last summer was around $200,000.
Mr Taylor said some rain was expected this weekend but it was unlikely to do more than "wet the dust". His real concern was a predicted increase in wind, a major factor in Northland wildfires. He praised Northlanders for their heightened fire awareness, saying this summer was markedly different to previous fire seasons.
"The public has been extraordinarily well behaved and letting us know whenever they see smoke. We don't want to remove people's right to light fires so we're keeping our options open. If conditions become safer we'll start issuing permits again," he said.
The main reason behind the reduction in fires was the lack of wind so far this summer. Whangarei/Kaipara principal rural fire officer Kevin Ihaka said he was not planning to tighten current restrictions because they were already very tight. The only fire permits he had issued were for disease control in beehives.
The Pouto fire started on Department of Conservation (DoC) land near Lake Mathews (Stick Lake) in the forestry down Lighthouse Rd, last Wednesday.
DoC Kauri Coast Conservation Service Manager, Luke Archbold, said the fire was being treated as suspicious.
It initially burnt through 2.2ha of land but spread in the next few days to cover 11ha. On Sunday a crew of 18 DoC workers turned over earth and monitored hot spots using heat sensing cameras.
Meanwhile, Kaikohe firefighters stopped a blaze spreading into a pine plantation near Awarua, 10km south of Kaikohe, on Monday.
Kaikohe fire chief Bill Hutchinson said the blaze started in scrub on the edge of the forest. Two volunteer crews backed by a rural fire tanker managed to stop the flames before they reached the pines. Mr Taylor said it was a "really good save".
Evidence suggesting the fire had been deliberately lit had been handed to police.