A neighbour choked on thick black smoke as she frantically tried to rescue a sleeping resident from a house fire near Ohakune early Saturday.
But the occupant, Mark Evans, a local sawmill worker in his 40s, perished.
Faye Martin was on her way to work about 6.40am when she saw flames leaping 30m into the air above the house, on Miharo St, Rangataua, and was overcome as she tried to force her way in.
She said the flames were so high she thought nearby trees were on fire.
She called 111 and banged on the windows of houses next door to wake the neighbours, who yelled that there was a man inside.
"I tried to get into the house from the deck but the smoke got to me so I was down by the letterbox, choking.
"I just couldn't do anything because it had taken hold. It's just a sad, sad state of affairs."
A relative of Evans - who police believe was asleep when the fire started - said the family were still coming to terms with the loss.
Martin said Evans "was a nice guy, do anything to help you".
"People always say that after people have passed on but it's true. He wouldn't hurt a fly. We're just a small community here. It is a real shock for everyone."
Firefighters found the body on a mattress in the lounge.
Sergeant Mike Craig said it was believed that visitors had been at the house on Friday night having a few drinks.
"The gentleman's been sleeping in the lounge on a mattress and it would appear that he hasn't even got out of bed."
Investigators were looking into possible causes, including drinking and cooking, an electrical fault or a discarded cigarette.
Fire Service assistant national commander Ian Pickard said the blaze seemed to have started in the kitchen. "It appears that it is a preventable fire death."
It was the 19th such fatality since last June, compared with 12 in the previous 12 months.
With winter fast approaching, Pickard feared the toll could get even worse.
"Usually it's been people not looking while they're cooking, or someone that's been drinking heavily then coming home and having a fry-up.
"We've had faulty appliances that people knew about but didn't get them checked out, or people drying clothes too close to the heater. These are all issues that seem to increase in wintertime."
Pickard urged people to heed the Fire Service's warnings, including checking electrical appliances, dousing embers and ashes with water, and not drinking and cooking.
"I'm really, really sad that we keep losing lives because people aren't getting the message. I don't know what more we can do. It's very disappointing."