Legend has it that the first waka carrying Tainui people ' />

Tainui's most sacred tree, Tangi te Korowhiti, has been torched and is unlikely to live.

Legend has it that the first waka carrying Tainui people from Hawaiki was tied to the tree in Kawhia Harbour 800 years ago.

It endured three days of burning after apparently being set alight by children. But the main trunk has now fallen.

The Fire Service was told about the blaze in the pohutukawa about 7pm on Friday and firefighters spent most of the weekend trying to save it.

The tree is not universally acknowledged in Tainui as the original mooring place. Some iwi in Kawhia believe that honour belongs to an adjacent tree, Te Papa o Karewa.

Kawhia fire chief Nick Tautari thought the tree would probably die. "It was an awkward situation because the tree's so old and some of the trunks have hollows in them and we didn't know where the fire was," he said.

"We poured a lot of water in there and it was not getting into the right sections."

Mr Tautari thought the fire had been lit by children in a hollow at the base of the tree.

Pieces of the sacred tree have been taken to Kawhia's Waipapa marae. Kaumatua Nick Tuwhangai said talks would be held with Tainui people from throughout the country to decide what should be done with the wood.

"Something of some good is to be made from it. They [the pieces] just won't be disposed of or burnt."

In 1990 a broken branch was carved into several walking sticks, which were given to eminent people.

Mr Tuwhangai was saddened by the damage to the tree, which he said all Tainui people had a connection to. "It's happened and we can only grieve for it."

Tainui chairman Kingi Porima, who was born in Kawhia, played under Tangi te Korowhiti as a child.

"We as children used to play around it ... and sit under it and try to imagine the history of those canoes coming," he said.

"The closest I came to recalling the canoes was in 1990 when a number of canoes came into the harbour."

The tree was the focus of many customs and ceremonies, including suspending the placenta of a child of note from it.