Bernie Hornfeck could only watch as the remains of his Rotorua home continued to smoulder.

The Iles Rd, Lynmore, home he built and moved in to 50 years ago was destroyed by fire in the early hours of this morning.

The fire began shortly after 1am while the 88-year-old slept on the couch. It spread quickly through the property.

"I just shot out, the place went up quick and I was s*** scared," he told the Rotorua Daily Post this morning.

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Mr Hornfeck wasn't sure if the fire alarm had gone off because he couldn't hear properly without his hearing aids, which were destroyed along with everything else in the house.

The roof had caved in and charred bricks were scattered on the floor.

But Mr Hornfeck was in surprisingly good spirits, joking with his friends about his lucky escape.

"I bought an electric car and it's being delivered today, but I won't get very far because I now have nowhere to plug it in. Never mind, there's no lives lost."

His ute, which had "probably driven about half a million kilometres" was lost inside the building.

His son John, however, was just grateful his dad made it out.

ROTORUA DAILY POST
23 Jun, 2017 7:10pm
2 minutes to read

"He's lucky he was asleep in the lounge, if he had fallen asleep in the bedroom he wouldn't have got out. It's at the other end of the house," he said.

Mr Hornfeck is a well known activist. In 2012 he helped lead a Aotearoa Is Not For Sale hikoi in Rotorua protesting the sale of state-owned enterprises while in 2004 he helped organise a march against the foreshore and seabed legislation.

His track record of protest involvement goes back to the 1975 land march led by Dame Whina Cooper, the Bastion Pt protest, Springbok tour, the fiscal envelope march and the hikoi against poverty.

Neighbour Lisa Cameron said Mr Hornfeck woke her up banging on the door.

"He's a bit of a legend, he keeps coming back from near-death," she said.

"It was really, really loud and I was really scared. I just can't believe he made it out."

Fire crews were still at the house this morning but it was too dangerous for them to enter.

Rotorua Fire Brigade senior station officer Colin Rolfe said four or five crews attended, including one from Ngongotaha.

"For now we just wait for the insurance company to access the damage.

"If they need our assistance then we will come back."

Remains of the house after a fire ripped through early this morning. Photo/Ben Fraser
Remains of the house after a fire ripped through early this morning. Photo/Ben Fraser

A neighbour, who only wanted to be known as Alison, said she woke just after 1am to the sound of banging.

She saw flashing lights reflecting on her curtain so grabbed her phone and went outside to see what it was.

Alison, who this morning was still shaken and tearful, said she instantly saw the massive flames and rang 111.

"It was unbelievable and growing incredibly quickly. I wasn't sure whether to ring 111 or go straight away to see if the man was okay but then I saw him standing out the front."

Alison and other direct neighbours on Graham Rd, whose properties backed on to the blazing house, were worried how quickly the fire was spreading so grabbed their garden hoses and started dousing vegetation and fence lines to try to protect their properties.

However, she said the fire got too dangerous with pieces of board flying through the air so the neighbours had to move away.

"It was just so hot and so loud."

For Alison the sound of the crackling fire and the smell brought back horrible memories from 18 years ago when she survived a house fire in Opotiki.

She said she and her then partner were living in a wooden rural house when it was assumed an ember from the coal range started a fire. She said she woke to the sound of the fire and instantly feared for guests in their spare room.

"I ran into their room and ran my hand along the bed to see if they were there but they had actually been asleep in the sleepout. I got overcome with the smoke and tried to get the window open to get some air but I couldn't get it open."

It eventually took all her strength to open the window and she gasped for air, allowing her to run back out of the room to safety.

Alison said within seven minutes the entire house burned to the ground.