Firefighters say a huge blaze at Hawk Packaging in Hastings was one of the fiercest fires they have ever fought.

The inferno, which sent flames leaping 20m, began at 8pm on Tuesday and destroyed the packhouse, damaged nearby properties, melted car tyres and left ash on homes kilometres away.

Fire appliances from as far as Palmerston North were called and 90 firefighters fought the blaze, putting pressure on available water supplies.

An area 100m x 50m that contained pallets stacked with paper and cardboard for this year's apple harvest, due to start next month, was left in ruins.

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"You don't get any bigger," said the Fire Service commander for Hawkes Bay, Chris Nicoll.

Crews had struggled to contain the fire, yet by yesterday morning it was almost defeated, he said.

"We are still having trouble extinguishing the flames amongst the pallets and bins of cardboard and paper," Mr Nicoll said.

All fire crews in the province as far away as Woodville had been called to the blaze, which threatened four other properties.

Hawk Packaging staff helped firefighters remove further combustible material from the area.

With the size of the fire exhausting the water supply available to fight it, the decision was made to let it burn and protect surrounding properties.

Hawkes Bay assistant area commander Ken Cooper said the fire spread remarkably quickly.

"In my 12 years' experience in New Zealand this is the most hectic fire I have been at," he said. Embers fell from the sky and ignited spot fires in the cordoned-off area.

Mr Cooper said the decision to let the fire burn and protect other properties appeared to be a good call.

"The radiant heat was so great we decided to evacuate about 20 residents from 11 houses as a precaution."

The size of the cordon was reduced last night.

Another fire chief, Alan Bamber, said: "We have got to keep the cordon because of the hoses connected to the water lines, but we will reduce it to the corner [of Coventry and Tomoana Rds]."

Mr Bamber said the fire was still classed as an emergency and crews would stay on site wetting the debris for several days.

"The emergency still exists as there is a lot of smouldering stuff right inside the rubble."