No Prosecution Despite Catastrophic Damage in Kaimaumau Fire

Jan. 26, 2023, 4:36 p.m.



On December 18th 2021, one of Aotearoa’s most devastating wild fire’s tore through the tiny seaside community of Kaimaumau. Over 2800 ha of culturally, historically and environmentally significant whenua was destroyed due to a fire that was lit with a permit, but not controlled.

The investigation report was presented to the public in December 2022. There was insufficient evidence to prosecute the orchard where the accidental fire developed. Staff were clearing shrubs on a private property to convert it to an avocado orchard when the fire lost control. Ngāi Takoto iwi have been forced to cover a significant portion of the $7 million cost in damages which includes accommodation, heavy machinery hire, security and catering.



Fire and Emergency New Zealand explained that the property owner had a permit to burn debris, but rising temperatures and strengthening winds spread the blaze out of control.

Fire and Emergency Te Hiku regional manager, Ron Devlin said; 

"A number of factors contributed to the spread of this fire including heavy dry fuels, high temperatures and strong gusty winds. We also investigated whether there were any grounds for prosecution, and we have determined that there is insufficient evidence to carry out any prosecution."



When Tautīnei attended the initial community planning hui during the fire, it emerged that the late conservation stalwart, Alan Macrae had issued the fire permit. He was well-respected within the community and the Department of Conservation’s first ever Kaitāia employee. He had worked for the organisation for over 30 years and concluding his stint with many successful community projects under his belt, before retiring in 2018. 

The community hui continued on a daily basis, where it then emerged publicly that the late Mr Macrae had been called, and refused when asked to change the permit details by the orchard in question.

In 2021 when Tautīnei questioned  Kevin Ihaka, of Fire and Emergency New Zealand, whether this fire was an accident, and then intentionally covered up by the orchard, he responded;

“There is legislation which states that we can not prosecute if the fire was accidental. The way forward would be for key stakeholders, iwi, Department of Conservation, the community, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, adjacent property owners and other local residents to come together and put plans in place with a sharing of resources, in case this happens again.” 

The Aupōuri Peninsula is subject to year-round fire restrictions but on November 24 the landowner was granted a month-long fire permit. Early in the week of the fire, gorse and bamboo were pushed into six piles, set alight and allowed to burn down. The remains were buried but some burning material was left exposed.

It is thought gusty winds on the morning of December 18 blew embers about 50 meters into the surrounding properties co-managed between the Department of Conservation and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Takoto. The fire then smouldered slowly through strips of dead grass and dry thatch under thick kikuyu until it reached the dense, dry vegetation of the wetland. The investigators eliminated other possible causes such as cigarettes, electric fences and even spontaneous combustion.



Fire and Emergency New Zealand detailed that a law change created in 2017 had made it harder to recover firefighting costs in cases where someone is found liable. Before July 1, 2017, the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977 provided a legal right to recover the costs of fire suppression from those responsible for starting fires.

However, the new law, The Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act 2017, is said to not give FENZ any such right. 

FENZ could use common law rights of recovery, based for example, on negligence, but that is said to require a higher threshold of fault by the alleged fire-starter. 

Common Law still allows other creditors who have been left in the lurch, the ability to pursue recovery of their own costs from a small business and residential level.

Ngarui o te Marangai, or Takahua (East Beach), connects Houhora to East Beach and was most affected by the fire. Kōiwi continue to be exposed by the beach when the sand shifts and they are reinterred further inland.

"Takahua is here. Across the other side is Rangiputa and we all used to stay down here during the summer. We used to pick up all the bones along these sand hills. Mind you, these sand hills seem to be coming towards us a bit more now. Used to be way back there. But we are still finding bones. Human skeletons, along here," Whare Mehana said in the Ngāi Takoto Sites of Significance Report published in 2010.

The cultural and historical significance of this area is rich. Some of the eldest tūpuna bare the names of Rangiputa, Kaimaumau and Wharemaru. The whakapapa of these descendents live to tell the stories of the past alongside their tupuna rākau, named Hakea, which stands at Wharemaru Pa. This site is significant because this is where the pito of tūpuna were buried. A cutting from this rākau was also grown in front of Wharemaru Marae.



Te Hiku Radio spoke to Peter Clark (Fire and Emergency Incident Controller) about the resources and efforts put in by over 100 fire staff involved in extinguishing the fire 30 days into the burn. Ngapae Holiday Park was part of the local ecosystem to support the firefighters and spoke to Te Hiku Radio about how they played their part. 

Ngāi Takoto, local businesses and local caterers also provided wrap-around support.  It was a community effort where consideration was put into utilising local businesses as much as possible. Everyone worked over twelve-hour shifts to battle the fire collectively for three consecutive months.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Takoto Chairman, Wallace Rivers, told Te Hiku Media that the iwi were able to share resources, skills and knowledge to exercise ‘kaitiakitanga-ship’ collectively over the whenua in a way that brought out the best possible result. 

One Ngāi Takoto iwi member who is a staunch kaitiaki whenua , is Jamie Brown of Waimanoni.

"I don't know how no one was held accountable for this disaster of a fire. Cover up hard man. Had it been a cuzzy probably would of been prosecuted," said Brown.

Kaimaumau long-time resident and iwi kaitiaki, Claire Tamati didn't want to comment because her language would be too colourful.

Darren Atkinson, Kaitaia Airport Manager, said that The Department of Conservation need to restore the area into kauri trees. It used to be like that before and get rid of all the wattle trees that are currently there which are easier to catch light in the case of a future disaster.

The investigation findings have been a disappointing result to process for the local community of Kaimaumau and Ngāi Takoto. The cultural impact has been significant, yet overshadowed by a legislation technicality that basically let's the one at fault walk free.


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