Andrew Searle was a trained volunteer firefighter. He should have been putting out fires, but instead he was lighting them. Reporter Kristin Edge examines Searle's role in the fires, and how the young man went from firefighter to firelighter.
With a small plastic lighter in his grip, Andrew Searle went on a firelighting spree across a rural stretch of Northland countryside.
The volunteer firefighter left a trail of destruction across the landscape on Pouto Peninsula.
But it wasn't just the physical charred scars on the land and $1.4m lost in forestry production or the $642,595 it cost to extinguish the fires, his actions struck at the heart of the tight-knit firefighting community.
Searle's actions were the antithesis of what firefighting is all about.
The feeling in the community was betrayal, loss of trust and confidence along with the denigration of the firefighter reputation.
He stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow firefighters from the Te Kopuru Brigade fighting the string of fires he sparked over the course of nearly four years between 2014 and 2017. Those fellow firefighters included his father who was a member of the TK brigade.
Teams of firefighters, helicopters and rural fire crews spent weeks fighting the various blazes sparked by Searle and his cheap plastic lighter.
People living on the peninsula, in particular those in Kelly's Bay, were forced to evacuate as flames engulfed pine trees and licked at their boundary fences.
They packed up their treasured family photos and left their homes in the hands of firefighters they trusted.
One of the trusted firefighters was Searle.
Experienced police detectives investigating the multiple fires case were desperate to catch the person responsible before there was a fatality.
Their plea for the firestarter to stop made front page news in February 2016 with Detective Jonathan Teir warning of deadly ramifications and that sooner or later there would be a tragedy.
"There will be someone out there that may know who is doing this. The person lighting the fires may even have told you about it in confidence.
"I would like to hear from these people so we can try and prevent any further fires, before someone is seriously hurt or worse."
Tier said at the time he did not know what the person involved gained by lighting the fires and said their actions were placing their family members, relatives or friends in danger.
Senior rural firefighter Kevin Ihaka also appealed to the arsonist.
"The arsons will only be solved by locals - it's more than likely a local person," he said.
The fires and the impact
The Pouto Peninsula is a landform on the northern Kaipara Harbour and is a sparsely populated area with about 500 fulltime residents.
The peninsula runs from the outskirts south of Dargaville to Poto Point, about 65km in length. It is surrounded on three sides either by the sea or the Kaipara Harbour, with its width varying from 4.4km to about 14km at the widest part near the southern end.
Searle lived on the peninsula. His parents lived there and ran a forestry contracting business.
Searle had first hand knowledge of the terrain and knew just how remote the area was.
As a keen motorcross rider he and friends regularly took to the giant sand hills along the rough west coast of the peninsula, launching themselves into the air in daredevil fashion.
Searle was also a keen pig hunter and trekked through the pine forests on many a successful hunting mission.
He camped with friends and family at various places on the Pouto Peninsula. It was his playground but one he chose to destroy.
The first fire police charged Searle with was on June 5, 2014 and the last was January 12, 2017 at popular holiday destination Kellys Bay.
During the three-year period police charged Searle with a total of 10 fires, costing the Department of Conservation a total of $642,595 to extinguish and causing a projected loss in forestry earnings of $1.4 million.
On June 5 Searle and a mate went along the beach and went into an area of teatree and pampas bush.
With the quick flick of a lighter a fire soon took hold and 15ha of native vegetation was destroyed. Searle told investigating police he was paid to work on the fire for a week.
While camping with family in an area know as Mitch Bay he snuck off on his motorbike and rode to the Pouto Lighthouse where he again used the cheap lighter to spark a blaze in pampas bushes.
Searle went to a family bach where he got his firefighter gear and drove to the lighthouse and attempted to contain the fire. However, 10ha of native vegetation was destroyed before the fire then engulfed 8ha of commercial pine forest.
And in February 2015, Searle and his girlfriend at the time and another friend were in the area known as Tom's Track.
Searle drove along the beach and up onto the track where he lit some six fires which destroyed 15ha of native bush. Again as a volunteer firefighter Searle spent a week extinguishing the blaze.
In once case, Searle travelled a short distance from his home to an area of scrub and exotic forest to light a fire and then started a second fire just a bit further along the road in bush belonging to the Department of Conservation.
But later that same year Searle moved from vegetation fires to setting a bach on fire. He was staying at his parent's bach on the peninsula and walked just 50m along the road to spark a blaze in an unoccupied bach. It was completely destroyed costing an insurance company $247,000.
DoC was one of the biggest losers.
Director-General Lou Sanson said staff were from a wide range of backgrounds, who lived and worked hand in hand with their local communities, bound together by their commitment and passion for caring for native wildlife, precious places and working together for the public good.
In a victim impact statement presented to the court Sanson pointed out DoC was tasked with extinguishing the fires lit by Searle, a majority of which were in remote, difficult to access areas and imposed a significant impact on staff and firefighters.
There was a potential to risk life and property. Thousands of DoC staff hours were spent on the deliberately lit fires. Staff gave up their personal time during holidays and rostered time off.
The indiscriminate wildfires burned through delicate habitats and ecosystems that will take many years to recover. Some would never recover.
Sanson pointed out there was a major social impact on the staff.
"There were close associations with the Searle family in the DoC Kauri Coast office where Barbara worked at the time. Andrew Searle was a volunteer firefighter working alongside Doc staff and firefighters.
"The social impact on this tight-knit community was one of betrayal, loss of trust and confidence. This along with the denigration of the firefighter reputation caused by Searle's actions were considerable and should not be underrated."
He acknowledged police who worked on the case. He said officers treated the wildfires seriously and followed through on reported events.
So how did the young man, who loved adrenaline sports like motocross and wild pig hunting, go from firefighter to fire starter.
Searle was about 15 when he joined the Te Kopuru Brigade and was only a few months short of his 20th birthday when he was arrested and appeared in the Dargaville District Court, only a kilometre or so from his old high school.
In a report presented to the court for sentencing in March this year, Searle described himself as an "adrenaline junkie" and had lit the fires to get a "rush".
According to Ian Lambie, a senior lecturer in psychology at Auckland University, arsonists fall into one of three categories.
There are the very young who set fires usually out of a desire to experiment and curiosity.
Then there are youth and young adults who set fires for the hell of it and for the excitement of seeing the emergency services race to a call out.
And the third group are those driven by revenge or more complex psychological motives such as the desire for attention, to feel powerful or to conceal other crimes.
Typically with adults its an issue of power and excitement.
Lambie says those adults desiring power may have social problems or have low self-esteem.
In America the issue of firefighters lighting fires was given serious consideration and in 2003, and the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit compiled a profile of a firefighter-arsonist.
The FBI study found that firefighter-arsonists were mostly young firefighters eager to put their training to use and to be seen as heroes to their department and to the people of the community they served.
"He's creating a job for himself, he's seen as a hero and he's getting notoriety for it," said Kulbarsh, a nurse who performed in-the-field psychological evaluations on criminals including arsonists.
The unit found that most firefighter-arsonists used unsophisticated methods for fire starting and tended to start fires with matches or cigarette lighters.
The FBI came up with a profile of a typical firefighter-arsonist:
• White male, age 17-25
• A dysfunctional family with one or both parents missing from home during childhood. If from a home with both parents, the emotional atmosphere was mixed and unstable.
• Poor marital adjustment. If not married, still living at home with parents.
• Lack of stable interpersonal relationships.
• Interested in fire service because it provides an arena for excitement, not for the sake of public service.
• Suffers from alcoholism, childhood hyperactivity, depression, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal tendencies.
• Average to higher intelligence but poor academic performance.
In Canada, firefighters who start fires is a phenomenon officially called "firefighter arson".
Kevin Wedick, an Edmonton private fire investigator with the consulting firm Origin and Cause, says that of the cases he's seen in Alberta, most involve volunteer firefighters from small, rural departments.
"Some of these fellows want the excitement," Wedick said.
"They want to roll out there with the sirens and go on a call."
In addition to an adrenaline rush, they may also be motivated by financial gain, he says, since fighting a fire as a volunteer also means getting a pay cheque.
A 2003 report by the United States Fire Administration called "firefighter arson" a rare but serious problem.
"Their main reason for lighting the fire is so they can appear as a hero, either by being the first to spot the flames, or by rescuing people and saving property," the report said.
Fire and Emergency Whangārei/Kaipara area manager Brad Mosby announced a review would be carried out in light of Searle's court case.
Searle's mother Barbara is now the brigade's chief fire officer and his father Darren is the senior station officer.
Barbara Searle declined to comment when contacted by the Northern Advocate, saying all communications about the brigade had to go through Mosby at FENZ.
Mosby did not answer questions specifically relating to FENZ's view on the Searles holding senior positions in the brigade, when they had taken up those roles, or if the community could have confidence in the Searles holding those positions.
What Mosby would say was the FENZ area team were supporting the Te Kopuru brigade following Searle's convictions.
"Neighbouring volunteer brigades are also providing support as they quite often respond to the same communities together. All brigade members and their families have been encouraged to take the opportunity to access psychological support and wellbeing services such as EAP at any time for additional support."
As the region's top firefighter Mosby commented that while firefighter involvement in arson did happen on rare occasions, these incidents were very isolated in the context of the services 14,000 dedicated people who do an incredible job to keep communities safe nationally.
He confirmed Andrew Searle was an active member of the Te Kopuru Volunteer Fire Brigade for approximately five years prior to his suspension when the police laid charges against him.
"There were no concerns raised about him until he was arrested by the police in early 2017," Mosby said.
He says all firefighters, career and volunteer, are required to undergo security checks, including police vetting, before joining Fire and Emergency and this applied to people joining the New Zealand Fire Service, which was one of Fire and Emergency's predecessors prior to July 1, 2017.
Over time, recruitment screening processes have become increasingly sophisticated and for career firefighters this also now involves independently administered and assessed psychometric testing to ensure our people have the attributes required for a challenging job, he said.
"We believe that our systems are robust and we review them regularly to ensure that remains the case, although they can never absolutely guarantee someone's future conduct."
Day in court
As the harsh fluorescent lights of Whangārei District Court shone on Searle as he stood in the dock for sentencing, members of his family and his friends crowded the public gallery.
It was a long way from the pine plantations and native bush of Pouto Peninsula.
Lawyer 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.
Judge John McDonald directed his comments towards Searle in the dock.
"You and indeed most of your family were and are still firefighters of the Te Kopuru Fire Brigade. Although you were young and a very junior member of that brigade, you were still a member. You had been trained to fight fires, not only fires, but also to be called out to other emergencies such as car crashes.
"Volunteer fire brigades the length and breadth of the country do exceptional work for which the rest of us in our community are eternally grateful. For a firefighter to be involved in 10 arsons is a highly aggravating factor. There may well have been some financial element. You were well paid to fight the fires, and as you told the interviewing officer, it was better than working in the forest pruning trees."
And Judge McDonald pointed out, "I recall you said in your statement to the police that you liked lighting fires".
Searle would never be in a position to pay back the cost of fires "unless you win lotto", Judge McDonald concluded.
What was taken into account was Searle had no previous convictions, his young age, and the fact he pleaded guilty to the charges in February this year just a few weeks before a three-week long trial was scheduled to begin.
McDonald sentenced Searle to four years and seven months in prison. Searle was arrested in January 2017 and was remanded in custody. So given the fact Searle had been in jail since his arrest, the same day he was sentenced he became eligible for parole.
The parole hearing will be in May.
What police hope, and so will the community, is that Searle has undergone courses and treatment while in jail and that help continues once he is released so there is no repeat of the devastation he has caused by lighting fires.