An uninhabited island in the Hauraki Gulf, an unnamed woman who found herself stranded there for three nights after leaving hospital, and an apparent signal fire that burned out of control and went on to engulf 13.2 hectares.
Those are the pieces of the puzzle that Auckland Police are trying to connect as they continue their enquiries into the fire mystery on Browns Island, which is north of Musick Point in Bucklands Beach.
On Monday, police revealed a possible line of enquiry being considered in the investigation and introduced a potential link between the puzzle pieces – a distinctive dinghy seen floating last Monday afternoon between Browns Island and Musick Point.
Last Thursday night, following reports of a fire on Browns Island, which started around 7.30pm, the police Eagle helicopter identified a woman on the island and police maritime vessel Deodar was sent to pick her up.
The next day, with fire crews still battling the blaze, it emerged that the 38-year-old Auckland woman had told police that she was left stranded on the island on the Monday afternoon and that she was able to access a hut for shelter.
The woman told police that she lit, and then later extinguished, small fires to attract attention for help from passing boats but that Thursday evening’s fire had got out of her control due to winds.
Auckland Police detective sergeant John De Heer said on Monday that police were still working to establish the facts surrounding how the woman got to the island, and the circumstances around the fire.
He said a white dinghy with an orange-coloured trim and no oars or motor was seen floating between Browns Island and Musick Point around 3.30pm last Monday (October 31).
The police maritime vessel Deodar received a phone call from a person reporting the dinghy floating and Deodar located it and towed it back to Auckland.
“This was found on the same day the woman says she was left stranded on Browns Island, so we’re to keen hear of any sightings of the dinghy between Browns Island and Musick Point on October 31,” detective sergeant De Heer said.
“Obviously one possible line of enquiry being considered is the woman reached the island by dinghy and it is, in some way, connected to the enquiry.
“We also have no indication of who owns the dinghy so we’re keen to return it to its owners.”
Yesterday Mr De Heer confirmed to the Times that the woman had left a hospital in the early hours of the Monday morning – the same day she says she was left stranded on the island and the same day the dinghy was seen floating.
This was exclusively reported by the Herald on Sunday at the weekend, citing an unnamed source.
Mr De Heer told the Times that for privacy reasons, police could not say which hospital or why the woman was there. He also confirmed that the woman used rocks to write “Help Me” on the beach on Browns Island.
On Monday, police said the woman had recovered from her experience and that it was too early to say whether or not any charges may result from the fire.
She was admitted to Auckland Hospital last Thursday night after being rescued and was treated for dehydration.
On Friday, the woman was resting at home and was said to be in a relatively good condition after being released from hospital, but police said they had concerns for her mental wellbeing.
Fire Crews from across Auckland responded to the fire last Thursday and battled the growing blaze through the night, with more crews joining the fight on Friday morning.
With smoke hampering their efforts, the Auckland Rural Fire Service and the New Zealand Fire Service worked together to manage the blaze after it spread to cover 13.2 hectares of the island.
The Auckland Rural Fire Service said helicopters with monsoon buckets provided good “knock-down” support on Friday morning to help control the spread of the fire and that by midday, with the helicopters stood down, ground crews were targeting hotspots and securing the perimeter.
Principal Rural Fire officer Bryan Cartelle told the Times on Friday morning that the fire was “99 per cent” kikuyu grass but that trees and fence posts had also been engulfed. He later explained that kikuyu grass tended to hold a lot of dry matter which can burn under the green layer of grass.
“This can make extinguishing a fire more challenging but the crews working today and overnight have done a sterling job.”
By Friday evening the fire was contained and several trees on the island had been felled to minimise any further risks. On Saturday morning, the fire was completely extinguished but fire personnel remained on the island and were expected to leave by Saturday afternoon.
Police said they would like to hear from anyone who has information about the dinghy or who may have seen the woman on the island since Monday, or saw activity on or near the island on Monday afternoon.
You can contact the Auckland Crime Squad on 09 302 6557 or report information anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
By: Scott Yeoman