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Tapu Te Ranga blaze sheds spotlight on lack of fire safety across all marae

By Meriana Johnsen of rnz.co.nz

Many of the country's marae don't have smoke alarms and very few have sprinklers, Fire and Emergency says, which is putting marae assets worth millions of dollars at risk.

The investigation into Sunday morning's blaze at Wellington's Tapu Te Ranga Marae includes looking at whether its fire alarm system was effective.

Fire and Emergency's Māori liaison officer Piki Thomas said it was not unusual for marae to lack even the most basic fire alarms.

"From my visiting of many, many marae throughout the country, I would predict that less than half have fixed smoke protection and that includes smoke alarms - so that's alarming."

He said Fire and Emergency wanted all marae to have an evacuation plan, smoke alarms and sprinklers to protect both people and precious tāonga, but it was usually only kura or wānanga which could afford these protections.

"Most marae don't have that level of fire protection but we are getting better as a result of incidents like Tapu Te Ranga burning," Mr Thomas said.

"The importance of fire protection in marae are listed priority ... and then unfortunately marae have other priorities like paying for insurance, paying for the power, getting the practice knives, forks and cutlery on the table but at this stage, we've pleasingly seen a lot of interest in marae fire protection."

While Fire and Emergency do advise marae, Mr Thomas said it was up to local councils to ensure marae meet fire standards.

There was no one rule for all marae, as requirements vary depending on the size of buildings, whether people use them for sleeping, and when they were built.

Ngāti Tūwharetoa lost the wharekai, Parehingaawatea, at their marae Mōkai near Taupō in a fire just four years ago.

The iwi's chief executive, Topia Rameka, said like all 26 of their marae, it had a fire alarm so was covered by insurance, and they were able to rebuild.

He said that having insurance was vital to recover the rebuild cost.

"They [marae] cater to masses and so they're built to a high spec so the cost to develop these things - new marae - are in the millions, so that's what we cover for and in the event that something happens that's what our marae get."

However, insurance payments could never replace the "priceless" whakairo and tukutuku panels, he said.

Head of Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa Puawai Cairns said a single carving alone could cost hundreds of thousands.

"A lot of these carvings are carved by people who are master carvers at the top of their game doing one-off pieces - it is the equivalent of having commissioned high art pieces from master artisans."

For Tapu te Ranga in Island Bay, 45 years' worth of carvings and art was lost in the blaze, including a mural by renowned artist Robyn Kahukiwa.

Fire and Emergency's investigation into the blaze is continuing.

An investigation into the fire that badly damaged Tapu Te Ranga Marae over the weekend is looking at whether the fire alarm system worked well. Source: rnz.co.nz