New beginnings have begun to unfurl for Helen Lee, as volunteers and friends restore the bush destroyed by fire in January and left the 67-year-old retired flute teacher homeless.

Helen lost her home at Kirehe at the head of the Whitianga estuary when fire broke out on January 17 this year. One other resident lost his home and several people were left without accommodation, storage and work buildings at the Wilderland Sustainable Community nearby.

Fewer than five months on, dozens of people have volunteered time to help with restoring the site.

Whitianga Lions have donated money to buy locally grown plants to regrow the bush, with trees supplied by W.A.N.T. Nursery in Kuaotunu.


Helen never imagined she would be learning to start again at her age but is humbled by the help and generosity of friends, and strangers who have acted with the kindness of friends.

"It's going to be a totally different life and you just have to make the best of it. Planting the land -- that was the first thing I saw when I came up here after the fire. It is still traumatic for me up on the land as the house [site] is quite exposed now and I wouldn't rebuild on that. But I have a perfectly good place in town with friends whose hospitality has taken the trauma out of it. I'm learning to be a visitor, and not always being in my own place -- that's been good learning for me."

Helen says she has also learnt not to cut down a tree that you think is dead because many have come back with green leaves amid the black stumps and charred soil.

The restoration has been hampered slightly with the outbreak of myrtle rust, a serious fungal disease that affects plants in the myrtle family including feijoa and guava, manuka, kanuka and pohutukawa species.

The disease was identified in a small number of plants at a nursery in Te Kuiti in the Waikato, and Helen has put a hold on planting anything from the myrtle family until more is known about the scale of the disease and where materials and products from the infected nurseries have gone. She has been greatly helped by Hot Water Beach plants man Howard Saunders who is teaching a horticulture course at a new Wintec campus in Whitianga.

This week students planted an exposed slope, and plants grown from seed gathered by students of a previous horticulture course in Coromandel Town have found a new home at Kirehe.

"The restoration here with the help of volunteers will speed up the revegetation by a decade," says Howard. "You'll see this turn into a healthier and more diverse revegetation more quickly. With volunteer hours, we have already done the equivalent of about two months' solid work for one person, and you will be astonished in a few months at the bracken that will cover here. The main thing is to get trees in the ground."

"On my own I might do 10 large trees or 40 smaller trees and go home to bed, but having a day like this with volunteers planting is really encouraging," Helen says.