A flare-up threatening homes had firefighters scrambling back to a large forest fire near Rawene about 4.30am this morning.
The fire started on the side of Rawene Rd, 2km north of the State Highway 12 turnoff, about 3pm on Monday. Fanned by strong, gusty winds, it spread quickly uphill into young pines.
Seven appliances and about 30 firefighters from Rawene, Kaikohe and Kerikeri responded.
At the peak of the fire six helicopters — from Paihia, Whangārei and Dargaville — were dumping monsoon buckets filled in the nearby Ōmanaia River.
Three homes were evacuated on the north side of the fire and other residents were told to be ready to leave at short notice.
The choppers were stood down at nightfall but two ground crews continued fighting the fire through the night.
Northland deputy chief rural fire officer Michael Champtaloup said Rawene and Kaikohe brigades were called back about 4.30am today after a large flare-up close to homes on the southern side of the fire.
The volunteers protected the houses until heavy rain about 7am dampened down the flames.
Two helicopters resumed work at first light this morning, along with a Zielinski forest fire crew from Kaikohe and a large bulldozer cutting breaks around the fire perimeter.
Champtaloup said conditions were calm this morning but he was expecting strong winds in the afternoon, so firefighters were working hard to make sure the blaze was under control before then.
''There's lots of deep-seated hotspots and fires in stumps of trees so it's going to take quite a few days to put out. But we did stop it getting into the big trees — it would have taken off and been a big loss for the owner.''
The cause was not yet known, Champtaloup said.
''But it started on the side of the road, most likely from someone passing by. We don't know if it was accidental or not.''
When first reported the fire covered an area along the roadside of about 100m by 3m. By 5pm it had grown to 3ha and was spreading quickly.
The huge column of smoke could be seen many kilometres away in North Hokianga and people as far away as Kerikeri, on the opposite coast, reported seeing hazy skies and smelling smoke.
By 8pm the fire had grown to 10ha but was largely contained, with the wind easing just as the flames reached a stand of mature pines.
The evacuees went to a carpark at the Rawene junction or waited at friends' homes until it was safe to return.
Rawene Rd was closed between SH12 and Rawene Hospital until about 9.15pm on Monday, making a long wait for residents heading home from work.
North Hokianga residents were unable to reach the ferry to Kohukohu and out-of-towners couldn't access the hospital.
Zarya Quitta was among those in a queue of about 20 vehicles waiting to get home to Rawene.
She was unfazed by the wait and made herself comfortable on a mat beside her car.
Corrections staff had delivered water, cake and fruit to the stranded motorists, she said.
Rawene Rd is open to traffic today.