Kaimaumau fire described as ecological “catastrophic disaster” for nearly extinct species

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Environmentalists say it will take up to a year to know the extent of fire damage to the Kaimaumau wetland.

Heavy machinery was brought in to widen an existing track and create fire breaks, as well as around orchards, around the village of Kaimaumau on December 20, 2021.
Photo: Facebook / Northland – Fire and Emergency

On the seventh day of the fire, five helicopters, 25 firefighters and nine bulldozers and excavators attempt to strengthen containment lines and extinguish hot spots.

The blaze – which devastated 2,000 ha of bush vegetation, scrub, swamps and dunes – was contained and did not spread overnight. Peat fires are burning underground in the wetland.

Forest and Bird Northland conservation director Dean Baigent-Mercer said it was an ecological “catastrophic disaster”.

A dozen plant species from the Far North Canton were already on the verge of extinction before the fire, Baigent-Mercer said.

“There are ferns that are really close to extinction, there is a tiny mistletoe growing on kānuka, and there are orchids.

“One of the orchids has not even been named by scientists yet and there is only one photograph of it in bloom in the world.”

Dean Baigent-Mercer, Forest & Bird

Forest and Bird Northland conservation director Dean Baigent-Mercer said some animals may not have been able to escape the rapidly spreading fire.
Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

The wetland is one of Te Tai Tokerau’s “natural wonders”, he said.

“There’s the Northland mudfish, which obviously only lives here. There’s the Australasian bittern which is now classified as nationally critical, in terms of proximity to extinction, so it’s similar to kākāpō in terms of numbers.

Firefighters with monsoon buckets continued to clean firewalls and vegetation around the perimeter to contain the blaze in Kaimaumau on December 20, 2021.

Firefighters with monsoon buckets continued to clean firewalls and vegetation around the perimeter to contain the blaze in Kaimaumau on December 20, 2021.
Photo: Facebook / Northland – Fire and Emergency

“There’s also the Northland green gecko and the Aupouri gecko and they’re really special creatures.”

Baigent-Mercer said the fire would have spread too quickly for some to escape, especially nesting birds.

“There are nesting birds out there right now as well as all this other special wildlife. Who knows this is going to stick around, but it’s probably not a good picture at all.”

While next year’s spring growth would show which species have survived, he said the wetland is now at risk of weed invasion.

Forest and Bird expects the ecological damage from the fire to be similar to that of the Australian bushfires in 2019.

The blaze was only 200 meters from some houses and forced some of them to evacuate, but they were able to return home yesterday.

Fire crews will be working over Christmas and New Years to control and mop up the blaze.

Baigent-Mercer said the firefighters sacrificing their Christmas to put out the blaze were “national heroes.”

Campers will be banned from Kaimaumau on this holiday to reduce the risk of further fires and to avoid evacuation issues.

Fire crews are carrying out a controlled burn in Kaimaumau to remove 15 ha of vegetation, which they hope will remove fuel for the forest fires near the seaside village.


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