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Fire on Late Island, causes concern

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Fire rages out of control on Late Island, on Friday night, 14 November 2015. Photo Nadya Zvyagina.

A major fire on Late Island believed to have started on Thursday has continued to rage throughout Friday night on the island - an important nature reserve.

The fire on the island was first observed during an expedition there on Thursday by a group of telecommunications workers. One of them said they lit a fire to send out a smoke signal to a boat.

Pafilio Tangitau, a boat owner in Neiafu, told Matangi Tonga Online that Digicel Tonga had chartered his boat to take six staff for a possible survey on Late Island. He said they arrived at Late Island at 5:00am and the six passengers went ashore.

Around noon, Pafilio said he saw a fire and smoke from the island, located about one third of the way up the volcanic cone-shaped island.

His passengers came down after 6:00pm and got back onto the boat and they left Late Island at around 11:00pm on Thursday.


One of the charter passengers, Noa, told Matangi Tonga Online on Friday that he saw a fire. “It was up higher, it was a normal fire, like a bush fire,” he said.

But Noa also admitted that he did not see the fire burning when the group arrived.

Actually, we made a sign for the boat…we made a fire to notify the boat,” he said. “The boat came, but when we left the fire went out.

There was no-one on the island, just us."

Noa said the group had climbed the volcanic peak.

We went up to the top and came down. We made the fire when we came back, on our way back to notify the boat...more than half way down.”

Noa said the group left Late Island on Thursday night.


Allan Bowe who works at Mounu Island Resort, in sight of Late, said on Friday on Facebook “Anyone know why Late Island is in fire? Looks like a major fire and as it is nesting season the damage being done will be terrible. It is of concern!”

Brown Booby chick (Ngutulei) on Late Island, photographed by Nadya Zvyagina in September 2015.

Rare birds

The fire can also be seen from Fangasito Island in southern Vava'u.

"I can see the red glow of a raging fire on Late now at 20:23. it is heartbreaking," said biologist Nadya Zvyagina on Friday night, from Fangasito, Vava'u.

Nadya saw the white plume on Late Island on Friday morning and at first thought it might be volcanic activity

Late Island is a very important nature reserve. I visited there recently and there is a lot of dead wood after it was wrecked by Cylone Ian. A fire there could cause  irreversible damage to Tongan biodiversity.

There are birds that are common only on Late. They used to be common on Vava'u and other large islands, but have been exterminated by human activity.”

She said the rare birds included:

     Tongan: Hengehenga
     English: Tongan whistler
     Latin: Pachycephala jacquinoti
     Endemic, found only in Tonga. Common only on Late.

     Tongan: Manuma'a
     English: Many-colored Fruit Dove
     Latin: Ptilinopus perousii
     Native bird. Formerly on Tongatapu, rare on 'Eua, a few islands in Ha'apai and Vava'u. Common only on Late. A delightful dove, which feeds mainly on figs - the colouful male is especially beautiful.

     Tongan: Henga
     English: Blue-crowned Lory
     Latin: Vini australis
     Native bird. Common on Late, Tofua, Niuafo'ou. Not widespread and distribution declining. No longer found on the larger islands with the introduced roof rat.

     Tongan: Maho
     English: Spotless Crake    
     Latin: Porzana tabuensis
     Native bird. Only found on volcanic islands such as Late, Fonualei, Niuafo'ou.

     Tongan: Tu
     English: Friendly Ground Dove
     Latin: Gallicolumba stairii
     Native bird. Restricted to a few remote, uninhabited and forested islands including Late and Fonualei. Feeds on the ground.

"There is nothing to stop the fire now. Late is going to be dead," she said.