All fire permits issued across Northland have been cancelled and a total fire ban is expected within days as authorities strive to prevent a repeat of the disaster unfolding across the Tasman.
A Northland-wide restricted fire season was declared on November 26 — which meant a permit was required for most outdoor fires — but as of 10am yesterday all existing fire permits were cancelled and Northland principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said no new ones would be issued.
Holders were being contacted by phone and email to inform them their permits could no longer be used.
''There's just so much wind. We're seeing a lot of escapes from permitted fires and we also need to give our volunteer firefighters a rest.''
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Taylor said the next step, possibly within days, was a total fire ban.
He was keeping his options open in case of rain in the coming days but that appeared unlikely.
From now on any sign of smoke would be acted on and extinguished immediately.
''We're at a tipping point now. We've had nothing really major get away on us so far but the district's ready to burn and we want to make sure it doesn't.''
The worst blaze so far this summer was at Ramp Rd, on Karikari Peninsula, where a car crash brought down power lines and sparked a fire that ripped through 130ha of nature reserve and threatened six houses. Five homes had to be evacuated.
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''That was due to an accident not a permitted fire, but it shows how volatile the fuel is,'' Taylor said.
Other serious fires have been started by escaped rubbish fires, fireworks, and arson in the case of two fires at Horeke two weeks apart.
Two major fireworks-related blazes broke out in the opening minutes of 2020.
One, on Waiotemarama Rd near Ōpononi, threatened three houses and took volunteers from Ōmapere, Rawene and Kerikeri brigades until 8am the next morning to put out.
Another fire threatened up to three top-end homes at exclusive Marble Bay, near Tauranga Bay in the Far North.
In that case Taylor said the property owners ''tried to do everything right'', including pointing the fireworks out to sea, but vegetation still caught alight.
''They couldn't believe how quickly it got away.''
A number of homes were directly in the path of the flames and would have been lost if firefighters weren't there to stop them.
Taylor said it was ''not appropriate'' to let off any kind of fireworks or Chinese lanterns while fire danger was so high.
News of an imminent fire ban was welcomed by Kaitaia fire chief Craig Rogers, who runs the busiest volunteer brigade in Northland.
''It's extremely dry here. It's a lot drier than were normally see at this time of year.''
Last year the brigade responded to about 410 call-outs, easily breaking their previous record.
Many call-outs involved out-of-control rubbish fires or nuisance fires where firefighters were called in because neighbours were getting irritated.
''So that's frustrating. It's certainly a demanding time of year, that's for sure. Especially over Christmas our volunteers are trying to take holidays with their families but they spend a lot of time riding around on a fire truck instead.''
Last summer a Northland-wide total fire ban was imposed at the end of January and lifted in mid-March, though restrictions remained in force for longer.
The biggest fires in Northland last summer included a 65ha blaze in scrub and pine at Horeke and a 100ha fire near Matawaia. Potentially the most damaging, however, swept through the hills behind Ahipara, forcing the evacuation of half a dozen homes on Gumfields Rd.
Meanwhile, Australia's bush fire disaster is continuing unabated.
As of yesterday some 5 million hectares had been burnt, 160 fires were burning in New South Wales alone, 23 people had died with 28 still missing, and an estimated 480 animals had been killed.