It's probably more a small town thing than something that is unique to Ahipara, but the response to last week's potentially calamitous fire was extraordinary, if not unexpected.
Jaqi Brown epitomised that reaction. She was on her way out for dinner when she saw flames "licking over the hill," realised that some people would not be able to get home, and headed for Kaitaia's supermarket, after placing a notice on Te Rarawa Rugby Club's Facebook page to let people know that the clubrooms would be open from 8pm.
By the time she got there, with a load of "basic sandwich food," people were already waiting. Then others, from the club and the wider community, began arriving to help out.
Roma and Rarawa marae opened their doors to the evacuees too, they and the rugby club giving everyone who had to leave their homes a meal and a place to sleep.
Small communities tend to be good at doing things for themselves. They have to be, and an emergency of this scale provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate what ordinary, caring people can do. Very little, if any, sign of 'officialdom,' or waiting for 'someone' to do 'something.' "In times of crisis you just pitch and in and do what you need to do," Jaqi said. Exactly.
Meanwhile a small army of men and women who could undoubtedly be described as some of the most skilful firefighters in the country were attacking the fire. By Wednesday morning they had it well under control, a remarkable feat given the situation they faced as darkness fell the night before. Six helicopters got much of the credit, but the ground crews from brigades and other organisations around the Far North did more than their bit. Te Hiku is exceptionally well served by its firefighters, and they never did a better job than they did at Ahipara on Tuesday night.
It never ceases to amaze that those firefighters, every one of whom has a day job, every one of whom leaves their family or employment at a moment's notice, at any hour of the day or night, accepts without complaint that many of the incidents they respond to need not and should not have happened. Even when they find that they are not actually needed at all they tend to stick to the view that it is better to be safe than sorry, that it is better to respond to a false alarm than not to be called when they are needed.
It was hardly surprising that principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor expressed some frustration last week though. Three major fires at Ahipara, all necessitating evacuations, in three years, prompted a warning that the time might be coming when the settlement's luck would run out. "At some stage we won't be able to get here in time, and we are going to lose properties, or even lives," he said.
The odds of identifying whoever was responsible for last week's fire probably aren't flash, but that's a warning that some people really need to heed. Even if there is no loss of property, or life, fires such as this are hugely expensive to fight, not only in terms of the thousands of dollars it costs to put a helicopter in the air but the time and effort of the volunteers who support them on the ground.
Taylor was probably right though. The day might well be coming, if these fires continue, when help will just be just a little too far away.
It isn't difficult to imagine that there are some among us who aren't aware of the fire restrictions that are in effect at any given time, and/or don't have the ability to go to the website checkitsalright to see if they are allowed to light a fire, but it does take some believing that some people can be totally oblivious to the danger in hot, dry, windy conditions. We hear, still, that it's about education, but anyone who is capable of being educated about fire risk at the height of summer has surely learned by now.
On Wednesday last week, while the Ahipara fire was still burning, the Kaitaia Fire Brigade sent a crew to Awanui, where an unpermitted rubbish fire had been lit behind commercial premises. One of the crew said those responsible had pretty much done what they would have been required to do had they applied for and been granted a permit, although given the fire's proximity to a stand of bamboo they would not have got one.
You really do have to wonder why someone would strike a match in that situation, and whether 'education' really is the answer. Surely sheeting home the cost of extinguishing a fire to the person who lit it would be more effective. Some people might have less difficulty understanding that a decent fire could bankrupt them than they seem to have grasping the concept of a restricted or closed fire season.
Our abiding faith in the power of education really isn't warranted. Someone on talkback radio expressed doubts about its potential to change people's behaviour last week in terms of wearing seat belts, given that we had been hearing that message for 50 years, and still some people weren't listening. The same goes for other major players in the road toll, such as driving after drinking, driving to the conditions, succumbing to distractions and driving whilst fatigued.
Granted, the road toll these days is much lower than it once was, but much of the credit for that probably goes to the country's rescue helicopters, whose delivery of expert medical attention much more quickly than was once possible undoubtedly saves a lot of lives.
The way many people drive probably hasn't changed much over the years, and the rate at which some people continue to light fires doesn't seem to be waning either. There has to be a better way of getting the message across, and ensuring that every deliberately lit fire at least has very real financial consequences might help achieve that.
In the meantime Ahipara can, again, take a bow, as can every one of those who gave their time and expertise, and genuinely placed themselves at risk, to fight the fire. Fingers crossed that the community has had its scare for this summer, and that three fires in three years doesn't become four in four years, or heaven forbid, four in three years.
Same old same old
The Waikeria Prison riot proves once again that a politician's job in opposition is very different to one in government.
Kelvin Davis was a very active, forthright Corrections spokesman when he held the portfolio in opposition, but is now attracting ire from all quarters for his invisibility as the man who is ultimately responsible for the manner in which our prisons function, whether that be in such extraordinary circumstances as unfolded over six days of rioting or the conditions that ostensibly prompted the 'protest.'
There is probably little that a Minister can do when inmates are busy burning their prison down, but he would have been all over this like a fallen down tent if he was in opposition, and had the opportunity to blame someone from another party. Which just goes to show, politicians who have all the answers in opposition rarely have any in government, and very little changes, whoever's in charge. The system rumbles on, whether it be prisons, housing, health, clearing out illegal firearms or education. And while it's easy to criticise from the sidelines, fixing things is a very different matter.