By Whakatane Beacon
Livelihoods have been destroyed by fire this morning.
What is believed to be a ram raid at the rear of the St John store on The Strand, started a fire that has gutted a block of shops and destroyed livelihoods on the cusp of the busiest shopping month of the year.
St John, EPIC Escape Rooms, newly relocated Pete & Jean, Emmeline Taylor Acupuncture and Brows and Beauty by Teppy have been devastated by the fire that started just after midnight.
Fire and emergency were called at 12.44am with the incident initially flagged as a motor vehicle fire that was endangering a building.
The fire was well involved when the Whakatane Volunteer Fire Brigade arrived and firefighters immediately called for backup from brigades around the wider Bay of Plenty.
Around 40 personnel from around the Eastern Bay and wider BOP battled the raging blaze.
Crews from Whakatāne, Ōhope, Taneatua and Edgecumbe were assisted by Rotorua and Mount Maunganui units. The fire took hours to fully extinguish and FENZ staff were still present at the scene this morning.
Whakatane deputy chief fire officer Malcolm Rowson said it was a long job and access was difficult due to the size of the fire.
Firefighters attempted to get to the fire through the inside of EPIC escape, but the top of the staircase had burnt out and access was impossible.
Once crews accessed the St John store, they needed to leave immediately because the roof was about to collapse.
Rowson said the fire was then fought primarily from the outside of the building, which took some time.
Police and fire investigators were present at the scene, as devastated business owners and members of the public watched on.
Long-time St John volunteer Lyn Price was among the onlookers. Although devastated by what she saw, she acknowledged the work of FENZ staff.
"I think they did an incredible job getting it under control," Price said.
St John store manager Robyn Wilson said the fire was completely devastating, especially to the volunteers and the hard work they had put into making it successful.
Wilson said the shop was stocked for Christmas and doing incredibly well. They are hopeful to find a new site as soon as possible.
"Hopefully, we can rebuild," she said.
The Bean owner Kevin Hayter arrived at his café early this morning and once power was restored, he made quick work of running coffees down to the FENZ personnel and police at the scene.
Hayter said police and fire staff made sure to check in on him, which he and his staff were extremely grateful for.
"They were incredible," Hayter said.
Whakatāne fire chief Ken Clark said the person responsible for the fire had ruined five people's livelihoods.
"And at this time of the year... my god," he said. "You really have to feel for these people."
Police said in a statement they were seeking information following a suspicious fire at a commercial premises early this morning on The Strand, Whakatāne.
Police patrols sighted a car alight in a building on The Strand at 12.43am. The vehicle appears to have reversed through the rear entrance," the statement said.
"It's fortunate police were at the scene quickly and could notify Fire and Emergency," Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Wilson said.
"I would like to acknowledge the devastation that the affected businesses have suffered, incidents like this impact the whole community."
Police will be reviewing CCTV from surrounding businesses.
The vehicle involved was a blue Subaru Forester with the registration FLD29. This vehicle was reported stolen from Kawerau on October 18.
Police want to hear from anyone who had seen a vehicle matching this description or had any information about this vehicle.
Police were also seeking any witnesses who were in or driving through the area at the time of the fire. Anyone with any information, which could help police with their investigation is asked to get in touch.
Information can be provided by calling 105, quoting file number 211129/6823.
Alternatively, information can be provided anonymously via Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111.