The hub of a small Northland community and its sole source of groceries has been destroyed in a ferocious blaze.

The owner of Opononi Four Square, Paresh Patel, saw smoke wafting from the roof as he was locking up at 7.45pm on Sunday. He ran next door to the Opononi Hotel to raise the alarm, then could only watch as flames raced through his business of less than a year.

Remarkably, the adjoining hotel suffered only minor damage, thanks to a patron who climbed on to the roof with a garden hose to keep the flames at bay until help arrived, a double firewall built after the last big blaze, and the efforts of about 25 firefighters. The historic South Hokianga Community Hall, across a narrow driveway, was unharmed.


Photo by Christopher Hoover

A visibly distraught Mr Patel, who moved from Auckland last year with his family, was being comforted yesterday by relatives and customers. He said he had already received many offers of help from the community.

Sue Leigh-Mackenzie, who owns the nearby Opononi Takeaways, said Mr Patel was devastated.

"You wouldn't get a can of beans out of there now," she said.

The "absolutely vicious" fire was fanned by a wind blowing straight off the beach and ripped through the building with alarming speed, flames leaping into the air. The firefighters did a "brilliant job" of saving the hotel and hall.

It was almost a case of history repeating itself, Mrs Leigh-Mackenzie said. A fire in the late 1950s destroyed the previous shop and hotel. That time, only the hall survived.

Fire service Muriwhenua area manager Allan Kerrisk said crews from Omapere, Rawene and Kaikohe fought the fire with water from the town supply and pumped from the harbour.

They were relieved at midnight by a Whangarei crew, with local firefighters back early yesterday after a few hours' sleep. No one had been injured and no one lived in the building.

A fire investigator was yesterday combing through the ruins in the hope of finding the cause.

There were some concerns the remains of the first floor office and balcony could collapse if the wind lifted again.

Four Square group manager Andrew Loeser said the loss was more than a building and groceries.

"It's a real hub, it's not just a shop."

The company was looking at all options, including an offer to use part of the hotel to set up a temporary shop in the next few weeks. Long term, the company hoped to rebuild on the site.

The fire also destroyed 114 PO boxes. New Zealand Post will try to recover any surviving mail today but doubts anything will be fit for delivery. An adjacent mail box appears to be undamaged.

Until the shop's future is settled, the nearest postal services will be at Omapere, while the nearest grocery stores are at Omapere, Rawene and Waimamaku.

Both the leased building and the stock were insured.