A Northland volunteer firefighter who started fires across the Pouto Peninsula and was then called to help extinguish them described himself as an "adrenaline junkie" and sparked the fires for "a rush".
Andrew Lee Searle, who will turn 23 tomorrow, was a member of the Te Kopuru Volunteer Fire brigade when he started lighting fires over the course of nearly three years that cost the Department of Conservation a total of $587,102 to extinguish and caused a projected loss in forestry earnings of $1.4 million.
It also cost an insurance company $237,000 after a holiday bach at Pouto was razed.
In front of a public gallery filled with his family and friends at the Whangārei District Court yesterday Searle was sentenced by Judge John McDonald to four years and seven months in prison.
Searle has been in jail since his arrest in January 2017.
He was to stand trial last month but instead a few weeks before it was scheduled to start he pleaded guilty to 10 charges of arson for fires lit between June 2014 and January 2017.
Most of the fires were lit in scrub which spread into DoC land but sometimes reached forestry blocks, destroying large stands of pine trees.
Helicopters were used to control the blazes while crews on the ground worked tirelessly, sometimes for weeks, to make sure the fires were completely extinguished.
In the case of one fire at popular Kelly's Bay in January 2017 two helicopters and six fire appliance were needed to bring the fire under control. Some of the local residents feared their homes would be engulfed and they voluntarily evacuated.
In 2015 a fire in February on the Tom's Track Searle light six different fires, which destroyed 15ha of native vegetation. As a volunteer fireman he was called out and worked for a week to douse the blaze.
"These were not small bush fires that could be put out at a drop of a hat. They were expensive fires to put out and the losses were great," Judge McDonald said.
In a report presented to the court Searle described himself as an adrenaline junkie and had lit the fires to get a rush.
Fire and Emergency Whangārei/Kaipara area manager Brad Mosby said it was disappointing a firefighter had been involved in this sort of offending, given the effort the service put into protecting communities.
As soon as Searle was charged, he was suspended from the Te Kopuru Volunteer Brigade which he had been a part of for nearly five years.
"No concerns about this individual had been raised prior to these charges and as a result of entering guilty pleas, he was dismissed from the brigade in early February this year," Mosby said.
"We are doing everything we can to support the brigade, which I'm confident will continue to deliver excellent service to the community."
In a victim impact statement DoC director-general Lewis Sanson said Doc staff responding to the fires had given up their personal time during holidays and rostered time off.
He said fighting fires was dangerous and there was a potential for tragic outcomes and the fires started by Searle had a major social impact on staff.
"Searle was a volunteer firefighter working alongside Doc staff and firefighters. The social impact on this tight community was one of betrayal, loss of trust and confidence.
"This along with the denigration of firefighters' reputations caused by Searle's actions were considerable and should not be underrated."
Arthur Fairley handed the judge a letter written by Searle the morning of sentencing in which he showed insight into his offending, was clearly remorseful and apologised to the community at large.
For the Crown Kyle MacNeil said Searle had deep-seated psychological issues.
Detective Andrew Bailey of Dargaville, who worked on the case, was in court and said he was satisfied with the sentence.
"The most important thing for the police is that he gets the help he requires so he doesn't appear in court again," Bailey said.
"It is a shame there has been a number of victims along the way and huge costs incurred."
He said the rural geographical nature where the fires occurred made it difficult to track down the offender but it was members of forestry groups and members of the public who helped police.
The arson charges relate to fires at:
* 2014 June 5, Tom's Track
*2014 December 6, Stick Lake
*2015 January 14, Lighthouse Rd
*2015 February 8, Tom's Track
*2016 January 18, Turkey Flat Rd
*2016 February 22, Glinks Gully
*2016 July 20, the bach
*2017 January 4, Pouto
*2017 January 7, Lighthouse Point Rd
*2017 January 12, Kelly's Bay