Tribal leaders have called for tougher penalties for arsons after a suspicious fire at a Bay of Plenty marae caused more than $500,000 in damage.

The latest blaze takes to 20 the number of marae damaged by fire in the past four years - with more than half deliberately lit.

Ngati Pukenga iwi chairman Awanui Black said the fire at Whetu O Terangi Marae at Welcome Bay had devastated his people.

Fire safety officers have not ruled out arson in the blaze that gutted the more than 90-year-old meeting house early on Sunday morning.

Mr Black said arsonists must be shown the hurt their actions caused. "Arsonists need to know they are going to get caught and that the penalties are going to be tough.

"A meeting house is the symbol of the tribe, the loss of which hurts a hell of a lot of people."

Mr Black called for a restorative justice programme where arsonists were made to face the communities they had hurt and to help to rebuild what they had destroyed.

He said while the financial cost for the tribe was huge nothing could be done to replace lost tribal taonga including rare photographs, tukutuku panels and carvings.

The call has been backed by Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon, who said recent attacks on marae in Dunedin and Invercargill had devastated Maori there.

Fire Service national Maori adviser Piki Thomas said with most marae surviving on the generosity of whanau members, paying about $20,000 to install sprinkler systems was difficult.

He said the problem was also compounded by isolation, with many marae based in the country, and unable to access water supplies required to sustain sprinklers.

Fire Safety information analyst Neil Challands said the number of marae blazes was comparable to fires at the country's churches, with about six a year - a third of which were deliberately lit. Church hall fires numbered about three a year.