Hopes are high that Whangarei's iconic Old Town Hall can be repaired to its former glory after fire severely damaged part of the top floor and destroyed the landmark clock tower.

Fire and Emergency NZ staff, Whangārei District Council representatives and a structural engineer went through the historic building yesterday and an initial inspection of the damage was hopeful.

It is believed the fire started in a ceiling cavity of a second-floor room, occupied by Literacy Whangārei, on the northern end of the 107-year-old building.

WDC community general manager Sandra Boardman said damage to the clock tower was significant and it would need to be removed.

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Two cranes were scheduled to arrive yesterday afternoon with plywood cladding being fixed to the clock tower to stabilised it, before it was cut free and lowered into the carpark area at the rear of the building.

Council staff met with community groups who call the building home, discussed the damage, and organised small delegations to enter the building and retrieve belongings, records and essential equipment.

"At this stage we're told the rest of the damage seems to be condensation, smoke and water damage, but we are at an early stage in the process."

Work was being done to re-locate the community groups together in another building if possible.

"Support from the community has been enormous with many people offering accommodation and support. We are also grateful to the efforts of emergency responders, fire, police, career officers and volunteers, for their efforts," Boardman said.

Janet Simperingham, of Dyslexia Plus, emerges happy a room housing their library has not been damaged in the fire. Photo / Kristin Edge
Janet Simperingham, of Dyslexia Plus, emerges happy a room housing their library has not been damaged in the fire. Photo / Kristin Edge

One of those allowed back into the building was Janet Simperingham, of Dyslexia Plus. The group occupy two rooms on the ground floor, and while extremely worried about their library collected over 40 years before going in, Simperingham emerged with a smile on her face.

"It smells a bit of smoke and the carpet is a bit squelchy but our books and games for teaching literacy are not damaged."

Simperingham had watched firefighters douse the blaze after the alarm was raised about 12.45pm on Thursday and everyone in the building was evacuated.

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It didn't take long before a wall of white smoke made it almost impossible to see anything on the central city street.

"Our library is dry ... can you believe it," Simperingham said.

Specialist fire investigator Craig Bain went though the building yesterday, along with Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai, and said the seat of the fire appeared to be in a ceiling cavity.

Specialist fire investigator Craig Bain in the most damaged part of the Old Town Hall. Photo / Sheryl Mai
Specialist fire investigator Craig Bain in the most damaged part of the Old Town Hall. Photo / Sheryl Mai

However, the investigation had to be halted yesterday about 12.30pm due to the unstable clock tower and the potential for it to fall.

He praised the actions of those who were in the building, saying they evacuated as soon as the fire alarms sounded.

"People were in the office at the time the fire started and they only knew there was a possible problem when the fire alarm went off," Bain said.

Fire and Emergency NZ's Whangārei/Kaipara assistant area commander, Graeme Quensell, was onsite on Thursday night when a crew used the appliance from the Parnell brigade to safely access the clock tower about 7pm which was still showing signs of heat.

"Initially we pumped litres of water on to it but we had to pull it [the clock tower] apart to get in," Quensell said.

"It flared up but it was a controlled process."

Hopes are high the damage can be repaired. Photo / Sheryl Mai
Hopes are high the damage can be repaired. Photo / Sheryl Mai

Quensell praised the work of all the firefighters involved and said it had been a "great save".

Quick thinking by a senior firefighter on the way to the job meant extra resources were called to the scene early.

"We have to look at what we saved rather than what we have lost," Quensell said.

WDC chief executive Rob Furlong confirmed the building was insured but there was a $5000 excess. He said the fire service inspected the building monthly as did Northpower, and the building was fire compliant. In the past few weeks the fire plan was updated.

Furlong said the building was equipped with fire alarms, hoses and fire extinguishers, but it did not have sprinklers because that was not required.

He confirmed that six months ago a small light fitting in the literacy unit melted and caused light fire damage. However the fire service had attended and made it safe and said it was not a structural fault.