Mount Maunganui residents who used garden hoses to fight fires threatening their homes say they were stunned by the speed of the flames.
Firefighters were called to at least six separate grass, shelter belt and scrub fires along railway lines between Hull Rd and Matapihi in the space of 90 minutes yesterday.
Fire and Emergency shift commander Daniel Nicholson said the first call came just after 3pm. In all, nine crews from Tauranga, Pāpāmoa and Te Puke were called to the various fires.
He said a grass fire up to 400m long and 30m wide in places threatened homes in Plateau Heights, Matapihi.
The flames and thick smoke were visible from State Highway 29A.
Residents of the street used garden hoses to fend off the flames, and police officers were seen using the fire extinguishers to help the effort from the highway side.
"It was so scary," said Plateau Heights resident Heather Cooke.
"The train went through and a few minutes later [husband] Mike says 'Heather, I can smell smoke'. I turned around and hello, we just couldn't believe it."
Heather said they were confronted by a wall of thick white smoke and burning debris.
"We couldn't even see out to the deck [10 metres away], it was that thick with bits and pieces burning. It was full-tilt."
Heather started shutting the windows as their smoke detectors screeched, while Mike began wetting the scrub on the other side of their property with the garden hose.
"All the people along here tried with their garden hoses but it was futile," she said.
Heather said she was grateful the breeze was on their side, and that the thick scrub had not been cut "because if it had, all that grass would have been so dry and that fire would have raced up here".
She rang 111 three times but was told firefighters would get there when they could as they were attending fires in other parts of Mount Maunganui.
"I was telling them, 'but there are houses here'. Honestly, it took a long time before they got here," she said.
Greerton station officer Brendon Grylls said the residents did a great job of banding together with their garden hoses until the brigades were able to arrive.
A report of a house fire in Cambridge Heights, which turned out not to be serious, and the other fires in Mount Maunganui delayed the firefighters' response by about 10 minutes, he said.
John and Betty Lewis also used a garden hose to try to protect their home.
"Everybody got stuck in," Betty said.
She admitted she was scared.
"I thought it would get up to the fence. The smoke was absolutely horrendous. You couldn't see the houses."
Barbara Jenkin had been travelling home over the Kaimai Range when she took a call from a neighbour saying there was a fire.
"We came over the hill and we could see the smoke. I was thinking 'I hope everything is okay'."
Jenkin said she arrived home in Plateau Heights to find black soot all through her bathroom due to windows having been left open but was grateful it was not worse.
Firefighters have fought other grass fires near railway tracks in the Mount Maunganui area this summer.
KiwiRail acting chief operations officer Henare Clarke said last night the track was closed for inspection and two freight services that passed through the area yesterday afternoon have also been inspected. The line reopened at 7.40pm.
KiwiRail was investigating what may have caused the fire.
He said the organisation had done a lot of firebreak work in the area, particularly from the Mount Maunganui freight terminal to Hewletts Rd and to Te Maunga, including clearing trackside vegetation.
"We are continually reviewing what further work could be done."
- Additional reporting Samantha Motion and George Novak