Firefighters are this afternoon returning to a house narrowly saved from fire today.

The two story Bethlehem house has suffered significant heat and smoke damage to its upper level and the upstairs living area was completely gutted, Tauranga brigade senior station officer Neil Brown said.

Mr Brown said investigators were at the scene to work out the cause of the fire, and commended the actions of neighbours who spotted smoke and called 111.

''The tenants were on their way to drop off some stuff at the Salvation Army and had only just left,'' Mr Brown said.

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''In a very, very short amount of time since when they left the house to when we arrived, the fire spread very fast.''

Mr Brown said the home owners were in the process of re-wallpapering the house and had removed their smoke alarms as part of this.

''If this fire started at night we quite possibly could have had a tragic outcome. I believe there are two or three children living in that house.''

Mr Brown said the incident showed how important smoke alarms were, ''even when re-decorating, make sure you at least have one still in place somewhere high''.

Mr Brown and his crew were returning to the house this afternoon to assist fire investigators.