A Chronicle delivery contractor became an unwitting hero after discovering a mysterious car fire at a Whanganui rest home in the early hours of yesterday morning.

David Bell arrived at the Nazareth Rest Home on St John's Hill around 3am to drop off newspapers and noticed flames licking the inside window of a Ford Fiesta in the home's carpark.

"I saw flames coming out the driver's side. I rang the door bell and alerted someone to what was happening and then I rang the fire brigade on my cellphone," Mr Bell said.

Nazareth manager Trish Boswell said Mr Bell's quick actions, and the fast response from local firefighters, might have averted a major incident.

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"The fire was near a major power transformer, trees and vegetation. It could so easily have been a major incident," Ms Boswell said.

There are 46 residents living at the home plus staff. "It was a close call. The paper person is a hero."

Whanganui fire station officer Charlie Bilby said one appliance and crew attended at 3.33am and took just over an hour to fully extinguish the blaze and secure the site.

The cause of the fire was unknown. "There were no obvious signs it was deliberately lit," Mr Bilby said. "At this stage we are putting it down to possibly an electrical fault."

Ms Boswell said there were reports of vandalism at nearby Cullinane College overnight but did not know if the two incidents were linked.

"It's very unusual for a car to spontaneously combust. It's very quiet and out of the way here."

The car belonged to Lee Tan, a novice nun who is visiting from Australia. She said the car had not been used for a couple of days and was "as puzzled as everyone" about the cause. "It's very bizzare."

She did not smoke, said the car was locked and windows wound up. "It will probably take a mechanical expert to solve it," she said.

Ms Tan is due to travel to her hometown of Wellington on Saturday before heading back to Australia on February 9. She said her insurance company had offered to pay for bus fares until the claim is processed.

"We are blessed that nobody was hurt or there was no other damage. It's only a car," Ms Tan said. "I am very grateful to the paperboy, he did a great job, he's a hero actually."

Mr Bell returned to Nazareth later yesterday morning to see what had become of the car.

"I didn't stay after I called the fire brigade because I had other deliveries to do."

He too wondered about the cause of the fire and spotted the remains of a cellphone on the passenger seat where the fire appeared to have started. "That will be it, I bet you it was the phone."

The car fire followed an earlier callout for the local fire brigade. A house fire in Waitai Street was "well involved" when two fire appliances and crews arrived shortly after 10.30pm on Monday night.

"Everyone had been evacuated and nobody was hurt," Mr Bilby said.

About thirty per cent of the property was structurally damaged and the rest of the house received smoke and water damage.

A fire investigator was looking into the cause.