A wildfire sparked by fireworks came within metres — or a shift in wind direction — of wiping out an entire island and 10 years of work bringing back endangered birdlife.
The fire started about 9.10pm on Wednesday on a small islet off the northwestern tip of Moturua Island in the eastern Bay of Islands.
It quickly ripped through the entire islet and threatened to jump a gap of at most 15m separating it from Moturua. Almost all of Moturua is covered in dense bush and unlike many islands in the Bay it also has several homes.
Fire bosses started preparing a major response which could have involved evacuating the island's residents and bringing firefighters and equipment to the island by boat.
Northland principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said disaster was averted only because the northwesterly wind blew the flames and embers away from Moturua.
''If we'd had a southeasterly, at that time of night, we wouldn't have been able to stop it and the chances of losing the entire island [Moturua] would have been significant.''
The fire was monitored all night then inspected from the air at first light. A Salt Air helicopter returned with a monsoon bucket to dampen down the remaining hotspots. The islet's vegetation had been wiped out, Taylor said. The person who had set off the fireworks from a nearby boat had been identified.
''We now believe he's been setting off fireworks for a couple of nights but no one had reported it, which is unfortunate.''
Taylor would not identify the man but the Advocate understands he lives in the Kawakawa area. He has been interviewed by Department of Conservation staff.
It would be up to the top levels of Fire and Emergency NZ to decide what action to take, Taylor said.
''But the degree of recklessness, and the implications, would dictate that we'd have to consider prosecution ... If it had spread to the main island just 15m away, with that kind of extreme fuel loading it would have created an extremely large fire. We would have probably lost most, if not all, the vegetation on the island.''
One reason the fire would have been almost impossible to stop is because helicopters are no longer used for night-time firefighting. The daylight-only policy came about after two men lost their lives during a Karikari wildlife in 2011.
Since 2009 Moturua has been a focus of Project Island Song, a community-driven project to re-introduce locally extinct bids such as toutouwai (North Island robins), tieke (saddlebacks) and kakariki (red-crowned parakeets). Kiwi also live on the island.
Project co-ordinator Richard Robbins said volunteer groups such as Guardians of the Bay and local landowners had put an enormous amount of work into restoring Moturua.
''It's a very precious island. It makes me angry, and anxious about people's behaviour. It's not like people don't know there's a fire ban and it's very dry.''
As well as the re-introduction of endangered species a lot of replanting had taken place at that end of Moturua, due to a fire in the 1980s which started during filming of Savage Island and wiped out a third of the island.
Taylor said he was grateful to Coastguard Bay of Islands for offering to help with transport and evacuation if necessary.
The Moturua blaze comes only days after an incendiary bomb on a beach on Purerua Peninsula started a fire which swept through part of Rangihoua Heritage Park, threatening a pā site and a large kiwi population.