• Spate of Hawke's Bay fires believed to be suspicious, FENZ investigating

Spate of Hawke's Bay fires believed to be suspicious, FENZ investigating

Fire and Emergency New Zealand is urging vigilance among the community after a spate of what is believed to be suspicious fires.

Fire crews battled difficult terrain on Maraetotara Road during the early hours of Sunday morning in what is now being investigated as suspicious - the seventh suspicious vegetation fire in 17 days.

FENZ Hawke's Bay Assistant Area Commander Glen Varcoe, who was incident controller at the latest blaze, said appliances from all over the region attended at 2.30am including 50 firefighters, four tankers, four rural appliances, and four urban appliances.

The fire was contained after three hours, just before light at 5.30am. Another crew spent the day mopping up and assessing the site for hotspots.

Compared to the size of other fires, it was relatively small but the steep and hilly terrain, in pine trees and under the cover of darkness, made it difficult and dangerous to fight, Varcoe said.

He said it is being treated as suspicious "like any fire" especially in the location that it was, but the police and FENZ will investigate further over the coming days. "We wouldn't say that we are confident that it was lit deliberately, but we're not ruling that out and that will be part of the investigations and how it was lit that will also be determined by the investigators." 

They also "can't determine" but "can't rule out either" whether these latest fires are linked to the two blazes about 20km away on Waimarama Road the Sunday before. Fire crews spent just over two hours battling the fires - the largest of which was in blackberry and other growth over an area extending to about 200m, while the other one was in an area of about 10m x 60 in grass.

Varcoe said they needed assistance from the public to help them out if and when they see any suspicious activity. "If anyone sees any suspicious activity to ring Fire and Emergency or Police and let us know."

Other incidents over this period include one on Korokipo Rd, Fernhill on January 19 which threatened property and caused a widespread power outage. On January 28, a 5ha scrub fire near Te Haroto, Hawke's Bay was deemed contained after a four-hour battle with five helicopters and a further 50 firefighters in a small pine forest.

Principal Rural Fire Officer Trevor Mitchell said they consider all those fires to have been "illegally and intentionally lit".

"It is really disappointing for us that people are in fact acting in this way as the conditions get drier and drier.” The impact and cost is "considerable" with significant resources deployed to fight the fires.

He said it is unusual for Hawke’s Bay. “It's not normal for Hawke's Bay. People in Hawke’s Bay are normally very very conscious of the fire risk and are really sensible.”

It comes as the region entered a prohibited fire season on February 3, meaning no outdoor fires, including burning braziers and incinerators, are allowed due to the increased fire danger.

Mitchell said it is “very irresponsible”. “They put not only property at risk, but they also put people's lives and our firefighters at risk at well.

“Generally, somebody will know, and we will find out but there is also an awful lot more monitoring cameras around in rural areas as well as in towns so the chances of people being held to account is quite high.”

It is a trend being seen in urban environments as well. FENZ is also investigating eight structure fires in Hastings and Napier over the last three months that are believed to be “deliberately lit and are suspicious”.

FENZ Hawke’s Bay Area Commander Ken Cooper said these fires have caused significant damage and they are working with police to identify those responsible.

Of concern is that some of these fires were lit when families were at home. Fortunately, they have had working smoke alarms and have managed to escape the property.

“For me, you have got the initial safety concerns of the community, secondly you're putting firefighters at risk having to go into properties to expect them to check for anybody in there but extinguishing the fire, and absolutely it takes firefighters away from other incidents.

“It is a concern for us that potentially this is happening in our community, so the key message is for communities to ensure you have got working smoke alarms and if you have got young children or elderly in the house make sure you've got an escape plan that you practice with family.”

Cooper said it is something they are taking extremely seriously and are looking to ensure that they do find out who is responsible.

“We are quite confident we will put a stop to it. It is just working with various community groups to really put an end to this behaviour.”