1 Dec 2011

Police believe Karikari fire suspicious

9:51 pm on 1 December 2011

Police in Northland are treating the fire that swept through Karikari Peninsula on Wednesday evening as suspicious and are asking locals to report any activity in the area before it broke out.

The fire broke out at about 7.30pm on Wednesday evening and, fanned by strong winds, destroyed at least 3 houses and spread over about 40 hectares.

Two men in a helicopter making a reconnaissance flight over the fire died when the craft crashed into the sea.

The pilot of the Salt Air helicopter is a well-known Kerikeri man and the passenger has been named as Kaitaia DOC ranger, 54-year-old William Macrae.

A spokesperson for Northland police, Sarah Kennett, told Checkpoint police are treating the fire as suspicious although they had not yet identified the cause.

She says police would like to hear from locals on any activity on a private access road from Maitai Bay to the Karikari lighthouse early on Wednesday evening.

The Fire Service says the seat of the fire was an isolated spot on a track, in the middle of a large area of scrub and fires do not normally start by themselves in such places.

Kaitaia fire chief Colin Kitchen says there have been 14 suspicious fires in the Maitai Bay area in the past two years, including one last week.

Mr Kitchen says the community is very angry and wants someone to be held accountable.

A meeting was held on Thursday evening in KeriKeri between the National Rural Fire Authority and local body officials to discuss the Maitai Bay blaze and the string of arson attacks in the community.

Bodies discovered inside helicopter

The wreckage of the helicopter was found just before 7am on Thursday when a fishing boat spotted an oil spill and sent a diver down to the helicopter, which is about seven metres below the surface.

The Rescue Coordination Centre says two commercial divers reached the aircraft about 12pm on Thursday and confirmed two bodies are inside it.

A Civil Aviation Authority investigation team has been sent to the scene.

Ms Kennett told Checkpoint a police dive squad was on the scene to recover the bodies but she was unsure how long that would take.

The passenger, William Macrae, had worked in the Far North for 16 years and has a wife and brother who also work for the department.

DOC Director General Al Morrison says Mr Macrae was a highly respected and very experienced ranger.

He says he had been involved in similar emergency situations before and was well equipped to deal with the dangers.

Rural fire chief says fire "horrific"

Principal rural fire officer in Northland, Miles Taylor says the conditions were among the worst he has seen, with strong winds fanning the blaze.

About 40 to 50 ground crew, along with two helicopters, battle the blaze and managed to bring it largely under control by Thursday evening.

A local man has described to Checkpoint how he feared for his life as he fled his Karikari Peninsula bach on Wednesday night.

Robert Brown thought he could save his holiday home from the flames, but soon realised he would have to retreat down to the beach.

Mr Brown says he and four others cowered on the beach, as strong winds threw ash and burning objects at them.

He says he was panicking and calling out for help.

Mr Brown and his four companions were eventually picked up by a fishing boat and taken to safety.