They described it as explosive, extreme and rampant; and tonight the wildfire that cost residents of an idyllic Whitianga peninsula their homes is burning on.

The blaze broke out in a rural area south of the Coromandel township early yesterday evening, and soon engulfed whole hillsides, tearing through four homes at deadly speed.

"There's no way any man was ever going to run as fast as that fire was moving," said principal rural fire officer Paul Shaw, who commanded several ground crews that tried to battle the fire across steep terrain.

"The wind wasn't our friend: it stayed up, blew through and made conditions quite extreme."

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Ash the size of cherry tomatoes began raining down on residents as far away as Cooks Beach.

Across the harbour, Whitianga residents were left awestruck at the spectacle: one side of the peninsula lit up in flame, and a massive plume of smoke billowed across the twilight sky.

Twenty-six people were quickly evacuated, among them, members of the historic Wilderland Sustainable Community.

By this morning, all that remained of the hillside commune - an icon of Coromandel for more than 50 years - was a mess of burnt rubble and torn corrugated iron.

The entry sign to the Comers Rd settlement somehow stood unscathed among the blackened skeletons of pines, gums and kanuka.

Shattered Wilderland residents were too upset to speak today, but issued a statement vowing that their community would recover.

Other locals, like Jani Dennis, were still to learn if their homes had survived the inferno.

But neighbour Helen Lee, who had mere minutes to evacuate, grabbing her cellphone and precious saxophone, had no doubt her house and all her treasured possessions were lost.

All of the instruments used by the Mercury Bay Big Band were lost in the blaze.

"They'll all gone, everything," she said.

The blaze broke out in a rural area south of Coromandel, tearing through four homes at deadly speed. Photo / Courtesy of Thomas Everth
The blaze broke out in a rural area south of Coromandel, tearing through four homes at deadly speed. Photo / Courtesy of Thomas Everth

Despite valiant efforts by her neighbours Michael and Aaron Blowfield, who frantically cut down trees to slow the fire, the blaze surrounded her house and destroyed it.

Lee and other evacuated residents were today still in shock and many gathered at another resident's home at the cordon on Comers Rd, crying and hugging as their loss sinks in.

"The fire was too big, there was too many fronts," Lee said.

"It was everywhere. It was here, it was there, it was over there."

Dennis says despite the losses, she's glad that everyone escaped with their lives.

"We're just lucky that everyone got out because there's only one road out and no one knew exactly where the fire was."

She said it was a horrible experience.

"It was really dry and it happened really quickly and it was really scary."

Lee's daughter in law, Alexis Lee, of Titirangi, said she had been fielding calls all morning from those connected to the area which she described as a "spiritual home" to all those who have lived there.

"It's a musical, spiritual place that people come to feel at home."

Fellow resident Billy Hibbert also helped save several homes, clearing bush that was surrounding the homes.

There were some lucky breaks; one house overlooking Whitianga remained untouched, as did a nearby row of bee hives and two cattle beasts.

Another Comers Rd man managed to save half a dozen vehicles, among them a classic Chevrolet.

But a neighbouring hilltop house was completely razed to the ground, reduced to a smouldering pile of roof tiles, warped guttering and the twisted shell of a microwave.

The fire had also ripped through a large shed, blowing out windows and reducing a boat to a blob of melted plastic.

"It's been very sad for the community, and very sad for the people who lost their homes," said Shaw, of the Thames Rural Fire Authority.

An aerial photo shows the scale of the fire. Photo / Courtesy of Mercury Bay Informer
An aerial photo shows the scale of the fire. Photo / Courtesy of Mercury Bay Informer

"But we have lost no lives: that's a big bonus and that's largely due to the fact that we got everyone evacuated nice and early."

Shaw also paid tribute to the four separate fire crews that had succeeded in saving other properties, and pilots of three helicopters that were tonight still attacking what remained of the fire with monsoon buckets.

Having destroyed 10ha of land, the blaze had now been contained to a perimeter that Shaw hoped could be widened tomorrow.

But it could be as long as a week before the fire was completely out.

"This week we are expecting a wind shift to the northwest, which is not going to be helpful to us, but we are hoping to have it contained well enough before then."

Thames Valley principal rural fire officer Paul Shaw addresses media in front of one of the houses that was razed by the fire. Photo / Belinda Feek
Thames Valley principal rural fire officer Paul Shaw addresses media in front of one of the houses that was razed by the fire. Photo / Belinda Feek

Meanwhile, the Whitianga community has rallied around those who lost their homes.

A Givealittle page has been set up, while the Whitianga Hotel was also collecting donations.

"The community of Whitianga and Coromandel is a very supportive, very caring one," Coromandel MP Scott Simpson said.

"So I'm sure, as has happened in other cases when there has been a need, this community will step up and do whatever it can to make sure that local residents are supported in every way possible."

One of three helicopters battling the blaze douses the fire with a monsoon bucket. Photo / Courtesy of Karen McLeod Photography
One of three helicopters battling the blaze douses the fire with a monsoon bucket. Photo / Courtesy of Karen McLeod Photography