Three major fires in three years: Ahipara blazes need to stop before lives are lost, fire boss says

It’s only a matter of time before homes or even lives are lost at Ahipara unless locals grasp the danger they are in, Northland’s rural fire boss says.

Firefighters are still at a huge wildfire that tore through almost 60ha of scrub and native bush and forced the evacuation of up to 100 homes.

Flames more than 10m high advanced within metres of some houses but none were destroyed, thanks to firefighters who stayed on guard throughout the night.

Some evacuees were allowed home around 11.30am today but others had to wait because increasing wind and temperatures made the risk of a flare-up too great.

Northland principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor, who had just that day imposed a total fire ban, was visibly frustrated.

”This is the third year in a row we’ve been here. This is the third year we’ve evacuated houses. This can’t keep happening. At some stage we won’t be able to get here in time and we are going to lose properties or even lives. The community needs to understand the risk they are in.”

The cause of the latest blaze is still being investigated but previous wildfires have been caused by people burning rubbish, often in breach of fire restrictions.

The fire started about 5.45pm on Tuesday in the Gumfields Historic Reserve on the ridge above town.

It spread quickly through tinder-dry scrub. Homes on Reef View Rd, Tasman Heights Drive and Panorama Lane were in particular danger.

Volunteer firefighters came from every corner of the Far North, backed by six helicopters filling monsoon buckets from the sea.

Tessa Pohio, holidaying from Auckland with 20 friends and whānau, was among those evacuated.

”The kids were scared but for us it was exciting. We all went to the beach to watch. But it got serious when a firefighter came to us and said, ‘You’re not being evacuated right now, but if you do, you’ll have only 10 minutes to get out’.”

Twenty minutes later they had to flee, leaving behind a dinner of crayfish, kahawai and lamb.

A line of flame was advancing down the hillside and ash was falling around the house, she said.

Phelan Pirrie, a Muriwai firefighter holidaying in Ahipara, helped local volunteers battle the blaze.

”The flames were 10m-plus high. When the scrub gets to a certain temperature it goes white-hot and explodes. The sound is like a jet engine. We had a few fire tornadoes going on too. It was insane.”

Ahipara Rugby Club threw open its doors to the evacuees, providing shelter, food and cups of tea to up to 50 at a time.

Long-time club member Jaqi Brown knew people would need help as soon as she saw the fire.

”I saw it licking over the hill and I thought, ‘There’s people who aren’t going to be able to get home tonight’.”

Volunteers turned out to help while the Salvation Army, Te Rarawa and others donated kai.

”In times of crisis you just pitch in and do what you need to,” Brown said.

More than 70 people spent the night at Roma Marae.

The helicopters got back to work at first light around 5.30am.

By 9am incident controller Rory Renwick said the blaze had covered 56ha but was 95 per cent contained.

About 40 people — Fire and Emergency NZ, forestry and DOC crews — were fighting the flames on the ground.

At 11.30am Foreshore Rd was partly reopened and Tasman Heights residents were allowed to return home.

Others, however, are still waiting.

With wind and temperatures expected to rise late in the afternoon there was a chance of extreme fire behaviour, which would be impossible to control, Renwick said.

Firefighters were likely to be “chasing hot spots” for several days.

He urged anyone with information about how the fire started to call police on 105 or FENZ on (09) 486 7949.

Far North Mayor John Carter praised the firefighters’ efforts and said the blaze showed how dangerously dry Northland was.

”Fortunately we’ve got away without loss of life, loss of property or injury, but every resident and every visitor to Northland has a responsibility to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. It’s a massive warning.”

Taylor said Fenz just turning up and putting out fires at Ahipara would not solve the problem.

”It’s got to be partnership with the community and they need to be vigilant. These fires move very, very fast. My biggest fear is we are going to lose properties or lives.”

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