A Far North marae hit by fire this week had been the subject of infighting over a new building on the site, a marae leader says.

Mokau Marae Trust chairman Dave Scott said he was told by a fire investigator that the Friday afternoon blaze appeared suspicious.

The marae is 45km north of Whangarei, and police are investigating, but a police spokeswoman would not comment further.

The wharenui (meeting house) was gutted in the fire, but the yet-to-be-completed wharekai (food hall) was saved.


Scott arrived at the marae within minutes of the alarm being raised and described a scene of "devastation". "It was just thick, black smoke and flames shooting out the windows." He understood the fire started in mattresses in the wharenui, which was open but unoccupied at the time.

The wharekai is being built with donations from billionaire steel magnate Alexander Abramov, who is building a luxury retreat in the Bay of Islands.

Scott said there had been "in-house fighting" since the wharekai project began in 2005. "There has been some ill-feeling in the community ... about the building of the new wharekai."

Charred carvings would be salvaged to be incorporated in a rebuilt wharenui, expected to cost up to $400,000, he said.