‘Horror’ as fire at Manawatāwhi Island off Northland coast threatens world’s rarest tree

A Far North kaitiaki has described her horror after a historic fire on Manawatāwhi Island/Great Island threatened the world’s rarest tree.

Two Skyworks helicopters dropped 55,000 litres of water on the 15 by 25-metre blaze which was spotted on the island – about 60km northwest of Cape Rēinga – by a charter boat about 9.30pm on Saturday.

Helicopters took up to four hours to put out the blaze, which was on the island’s eastern side – fortunately away from the kaikōmako (Pennantia baylisiana) tree, believed to be the only one left standing and among the world’s rarest trees.

Ngāti Kuri trustee Sheridan Waitai, whose iwi was manawhenua of the island, didn’t sleep after hearing the fire had started.

“[It was] just horror, we didn’t sleep all night because we’ve got kaikōmako, the world’s rarest tree on the island,” she said.

“It would have been devastating, just devastating [if we’d lost the kaikōmako].”

It was the island’s first significant fire in over a decade. Waitai said the last significant event to affect the island’s biodiversity was when whalers released goats and pigs on the island before 1810 and again in the 1870s, as a food source for passing ships.

It was first believed the fire was started by a lightning strike but later investigations found that was unlikely and the cause was still unknown.

Bought by the Crown from Māori in 1908, the island was deemed a nature reserve in 1956 for the preservation of flora and fauna.

Waitai said Ngāti Kuri, alongside other scientific organisations, did extensive study on the island to ensure its biodiversity was preserved.

“We know what’s on the island intimately so everyone’s feeling quite sad and overwhelmed, but it could have been worse.”

She pleaded with anyone who planned to sail or fish near the island to watch out for any fires, or anyone with flammable substances.

“If there are any boaties out there, just keep an eye out and talk to us if they’ve seen anybody with flares or fireworks.

“This was heartbreaking for us, but we are glad that we have been able to manage it and drown it out.”

All unauthorised visits to the island were illegal, Waitai said.

She expressed her gratitude to members of 4th Generation, Skyworks, Department of Conservation and NZ Rural Fire services for their support.

Four helicopters were initially sent to Te Rerenga Wairua in anticipation of larger blaze, however, only two were sent on to the island. Members of the Kaikohe voluntary rural fire force had been notified in case the fire required attention on the ground, but they were not needed.

Northland principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor was glad the fire had been extinguished without the need of ground troops to ensure little disruption to the island’s biodiversity.

He also said it was the first fire he’d known on the island in a decade.

“It’s very rare but also because of the biodiversity, it certainly gets your attention.”

Other weekend blazes across Northland included rubbish fires which were illegal, given the total fire ban put in place for Northland from December 30.

“It’s extremely frustrating, people just seem to be either completely disregarding the fire ban or they are completely oblivious to it, which is gobsmacking because we’re in the middle of summer,” Taylor said.

“It’s extremely dry and for people to say they didn’t know there was a fire ban on, it does wear a little bit thin because it’s not hard to work out.”

A large fire in the Gumfields Historic Reserve in Ahipara on Tuesday result in more than 100 homes being evacuated.

Taylor said a drone flown over the site a couple of days ago found the last hotspots had been dampened. The fire was still being treated as suspicious and was under investigation.

Taylor had hoped to kōrero with the community in the days after the fire but said he had been too busy dealing with other blazes.

However, Taylor said he knew of no fireworks-related fires over New Year’s in the Far North, which was a positive sign.

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