Police and fire investigators suspect a blaze that ripped through a historic but heavily vandalised homestead in East Auckland at the weekend was deliberately lit.
They are trying to trace a car-load of people seen at the 114-year-old Guy Homestead, overlooking Ti Rakau Drive in Huntington Park, before the fire was reported about 7.45pm on Saturday.
Six fire engines turned out to fight the blaze, and Ti Rakau Drive was closed to traffic after thick smoke billowed down from the building, said to have been a magnet for street kids and vandals in the 15 years since it was sold into private ownership by the former Manukau City Council.
Its current owners, Hong Kong-based Twin Oaks Ltd, have been trying to sell it and 7950 sq m of land around it for eight years for $3.5 million, but have been hamstrung by council and Historic Places Trust covenants.
Howick builder Nick Neben, who had been campaigning for Auckland Council to enforce the covenants to protect the property from further damage while considering whether to buy it back, said the destruction of what was one of the area's original farming homes would be a great loss.
"I felt like crying this morning when I saw it burnt down," he said.
Counties-Manukau fire safety officer Phil Faidley said the kauri and pine building was about 80 per cent destroyed and the police were following a number of leads after his investigation found the fire was likely to have been arson.
Witnesses reported a group of people, and provided a detailed description to police of at least one man.
He did not believe the case was connected to a string of rubbish fires at schools, parks and other public places through East Auckland in recent months.
Mr Neben said he and Howick councillor Sharon Stewart had urged the council two or three times this year to safeguard the homestead, set on otherwise vacant land in a fast-developing neighbourhood, but nothing happened.
"I just felt the council have let this slip away. We said 'why can't we just get it fenced to stop people getting injured?' but the council had a look and decided it wouldn't have warranted it."
Ms Stewart said she was concerned that "kids sleeping in there, rough" could get hurt. The campaign included an appeal several months ago to Mayor Len Brown, who said last night: "It's always disappointing when we lose part of our built heritage, particularly a property the local community is fond of.
"It's obviously an area of Auckland I know well and the news of its fate is clearly upsetting for people concerned about protecting heritage in Howick."
Howick Local Board chairman Michael Williams said the fire was "a real shame", particularly as the board had voted just last month to approach the council to buy the homestead.
"The board had asked Auckland Council to purchase it, and it was going through a process," he said.
Property agent Lawrence Wong, who has been trying to sell the homestead for Twin Oaks, said the company intended "sitting hard" on its high asking price as it was on "a beautiful site - the last bit of land that's available in that whole area with potential for development."