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Taming Flame



Haami Piripi
Board Member
Northern Fire and Emergency New Zealand

Mahuika is a famous Māori ancestress who was challenged by her descendant Maui the demigod that fished up the North Island, Te Ika a Maui.  The controversy between them centered around the source of fire and Maui was able to trick her into giving him her fingernails as fire starters until she eventually realized she was being duped.  But her aroha for her descendants motivated her to desperately hide the “secret” of fire in the forest of Tane.  She chose five trees to install the “secret” in and this gift to humankind remains today as the other timbers that when rubbed together create the ability to produce fire.  Ever since the time of Maui and before fire has been an integral aspect of Maori culture and Maori society.

This phenomenon exists throughout the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific and consequently today the Maori/Polynesian experience of fire is underpinned by our own philosophical pedagogy and this is reflected in the tikanga and practices of today’s communities. 

The management of fire is an important learned element in the relationship between humans and our evolution as socially organized communities.  In pre-European times the utilization of fires as a symbol of occupation was fundamental to the manawhenua and kaitiaki of established places and sites.

The ahikaa (home fires) is perhaps one of the most treasured roles within Maori communities and also perhaps one of the most difficult to fulfill.  There are extensive responsibilities for the ahikaa including managing Marae, contributing to hapu an iwi affairs representation in the community and conserving the environment.

In today’s world this philosophical notion about fire and people has become overtaken by technology and the decommissioning of a once sacred function.  In reality the production of fire can now be achieved with the flick of a lighter losing its mystery and spiritual functionality.

In our grandparents day, burning a home fire was a daily ritual just as it seems to continue to be in most Polynesian islands today.

Losing our cultural appreciation of fire has also diminished our expression of tikanga Maori and like many other cultural icons we have been left with a mere relic of its historical significance.

Nor have we managed to sustain our traditional practices around the use of fire.  Most Maori children now grow up unaware of their cultural predisposition to the traits of Mahuika and Maui their ancestors.

During my role as a member of Northlands Rural Fire Authority I have learned that at least 70% of fires are avoidable.

This means that most rural fires are the result of mistakes by people and some by malicious intent.

So what does this mean for Maori rural communities?  Another thing that has become clear to me is that Maori individuals seem to continue to express a form of sovereignty over their ability to use fire.  These phenomena can still be observed around the ground ovens or hangi which as a cultural tradition is held sacrosanct.

Indeed to try to prevent a Maori from preparing a hangi would be seen by many as provocative and an attack on our customary rights and interests.  This issue has been understood by the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Principal Fire Officer and we are developing a system that will allow the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Principal Fire Officer to streamline approvals for hangi fires as long as safety criteria are met.

The Fire and Emergency New Zealand Principal Fire Officer is convinced that creating a working relationship with Maori communities will greatly improve our effectiveness in combating wild and uncontrolled fires across our region.

As Maori communities and as whanau we need to turn our minds to this issue and bring a new, dimension to the discussion drawing from our learning’s from Mahuika and Maui.

Maui was saved from imminent death by the divine intervention of Tawhirimatea and contained in the story is the trail of sparks left lying on the ground creating both potential and risk for humankind.  Here is the lesson for us.

Our people of today ought to recognize these issues as relevant to our own kainga and the way we live our lives.  This would mean taking a fresh look at fire and our cultural practices around it.  These practices are actually disciplines that provide a philosophy for the management of fire.

It is incumbent upon the Northland Fire and Emergency New Zealand Principal Fire Officer to proactively embrace Maori participation in the business of rural fire management.

There must be a Maori presence at all levels of activity enabling the realization of the outcomes we have established for the reduction of uncontrolled rural fires.

Understanding fire, its features and its attributes is fundamental to managing it and taming in the context of our environment.  This cultural paradigm adds another dimension to the science of managing fire risks and these combined with our experience as rural communities provides all the ingredients necessary for an innovative and successful approach to reducing fire risks and damage.

The authority is simply a vehicle with the resources to respond and control.  The real work is in prevention and that work is done within any individual’s brain where knowledge and wisdom combine to provide the ultimate solution.

Na reira

Kia mataara ki tēnei tuku, ki tēnā tuku kia tū rangatira ai tatou.