Arson is suspected after firefighters spent much of last night battling a "dangerous" blaze in scrub and tall eucalyptus and pine trees at a reserve on the outskirts of Gisborne.
If found to be arson, the blaze at Waihirere Domain will be the sixth suspicious fire in Gisborne in little more than a month.
A hillside in the domain was well ablaze when the first fire crews arrived after receiving a call at about 6.45pm.
The fire was fought with two fire appliances and a tanker from the Gisborne fire station, tankers from country stations Patutahi and Te Karaka, and five rural fire units, supported by two helicopters.
"We would have had more than 30 firefighters involved in all," said fire scene commander Tony Kendrew from Rural Fire.
"The fire started at the carpark and the cause is treated as suspicious.
"When we first arrived, I was told several local children had gone up the hill to look at the fire and we mounted a search for them," he said.
"We were very concerned for their safety but they managed to walk out okay on their own. It was a dangerous place for them to be."
Mr Kendrew said the fire spread very quickly as the wind was a contributing factor.
The steep hillside also made fire-fighting very difficult.
"It was back-breaking work," Mr Kendrew said. "It was also a very dangerous situation because of the darkness and the fact the crews were fighting the fire under tall eucalyptus trees that had branches on fire above them."
Helicopters drew water from a nearby farm dam in monsoon buckets.
"The choppers were able to stop the fire spreading into young pine trees at the very top of the hill belonging to Mangatu Blocks," he said.
"Those trees were well saved by the helicopter crews. It was also fortunate they were able to drop water around the fringes of the fire before it got dark and they became unable to fly."
It is estimated about a hectare of scrub and trees was burned.
"A specialist fire investigator from Hawke's Bay has been brought in to look at the fire scene this morning to ascertain exactly how it started.
"It's yet to be confirmed but we suspect arson at this stage."
Mr Kendrew said the city firefighters worked until about 9.30pm, and the Rural Fire crews until 2am today.
A portable pump on the back of one of the Rural Fire units overheated and caught fire but was put out quickly by the fire crews.
Police put up a cordon to stop sightseeing public from getting access.
Principal rural fire officer Ray Dever said it was a well co-ordinated effort.
"The situation is a lot dryer than people would believe. It's really dry in places and people have got to take extra care with fires in the open."
- Gisborne Herald