When a helicopter plummeted into the sea off the Far North coast last week, the wounds of a land scarred by long-standing tensions were ripped open for all New Zealand to see. Marika Hill reports.
Two lives were lost. Homes were destroyed. About 130ha of land were blackened.
Last week's fire on the Karikari Peninsula was the most tragic of 16 suspicious blazes in two years.
Far North mayor Wayne Brown said the divide between employed and jobless Maori creates tensions.
"Over the last few years we have had a lot of deliberate fires because they're angry. They're angry because quite a lot of them are poor and it's someone else's fault. Someone has taken their land or they have a genuine grievance.
"Some are deeply embedded in those grievances and they won't come out of it."
Asked to explain the link to arson, he said: "Why do people do stupid things? People who are in a good, paid job don't do stupid things."
Brown said he did not want to see two good men buried with nothing more achieved for a region suffering issues deeper than one fire.
He called on the government to grant the Far North District Council greater power to make decisions. "We want to have more say here and fewer rules made for us. Just give us that unitary authority."
But Brown appeared unable to explain what this would do for impoverished Maori, other than saying he would give iwi leaders a greater voice in the region's decisions.
Karikari Peninsula is a divided landscape. One part contains the exclusive Carrington Resort, luxury holiday homes and power boats. At the end of the peninsula, on Maori land, there is native bush, white sand and gorse. Children ride horses and public access is blocked by a gate.
Residents from the wealthier side say the word is that the fires are being lit by Maori. Rumours abound of disputes between landowners and long-standing tribal feuds.
This is becoming a familiar theme across Northland as holiday homes are built in areas of high unemployment and social problems.
The local iwi, Ngati Kahu, feel upset by the "us versus them" mentality developing.
"It hurts me that people would think we would burn ourselves off our own land," a Ngati Kahu woman said of the rumours.
The woman, who did not wish to be named, said outsiders often refer to them as "dumb Maori", which only deepens the hurt.
Their iwi include doctors, nurses and professors. There are the unemployed and the dilapidated properties, but there are also new holiday homes proudly built by Maori to be passed down to their mokopuna.
Ngati Kahu is deep in negotiations with the Crown on a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
The government is refusing to accept the iwi's proposal for a partial settlement.
As Ngati Kahu fights for compensation, other disputes simmer on the peninsula.
Some local Maori say the Conservation Department wants to slice a public walkway through their land and cut back their boundaries.
Another dispute over the ancestral land has also gone to the High Court at Auckland.
Professor Margaret Mutu, a spokeswoman for the iwi, wants a court order to stop the proposed development of luxury apartments on their ancestral burial site. She refused to be drawn into an argument over who lit the fires.
"We don't want to speculate as to who has done this but it has to be deliberate," she said. "We know this area too well. These sorts of things don't happen by accident.
"We don't want to start suspecting because all that does is cause a whole lot of animosity, a whole lot of hurt. The community is already hurting."
Pilot John "Prickles" de Ridder and Conservation Department ranger William Macrae, 54, died when their helicopter crashed into the sea on Wednesday night.
They were answering the pleas of five locals who were desperately trying to escape the raging fire.
Police are focusing their investigation on the private road on Maori land that runs from Matai Bay to the Karikari lighthouse.
A total fire ban came into effect the day before the blaze.
Northern Rural Fire Authority principal fire officer Myles Taylor said members of the community will know who is to blame.
"In Northland we do have a problem with nuisance fires and arson and the cost is just enormous. It's something we are really struggling with at the moment."
The recent fires have caused more than $2 million worth of damage. The cost, until now, has been financial but last week two men paid with their lives.
- Sunday Star Times
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