When three Northlanders discovered a semi-conscious man trapped inside a burning car they had no time to think about danger if they were to save his life.

Both front doors were wedged shut, flames were shooting up the driver's side and the driver wasn't responding. And when they managed to wrench a door open they found the man's legs were somehow stuck.

Grabbing an arm each, cousins Paul Shepherd and Denis Winters ''pulled like mad'' and dragged the driver out — seconds before the car exploded into flames.

First on the scene, on Wainui Rd, Whangaroa, about 6.20pm on Wednesday was Marie Shepherd, who was feeding her calves when she heard a loud bang and saw smoke.

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When she went to investigate she saw a van had veered off the road, crashed into trees and caught fire. A man in the driver's seat wasn't moving.

The driver's door was against a tree and the passenger door was wedged against a bank. She got the sliding door open and shouted at the driver to get out but he didn't react.
Her husband, Paul Shepherd, turned up on his quad bike moments later.

The farmer managed to unclip the driver's seatbelt but realised there was no way he could get him out the back door. He wrenched the passenger door open but couldn't get him out that way either.

By then the flames were above tree height and starting to come inside the van. Meanwhile, Denis Winters' wife had seen a puff of smoke from nearby Wainui Rd.

She thought it could have been Shepherd spreading fertiliser until she saw the flames, and when Winters stepped outside he could hear an engine's high-pitched scream as if someone's foot was stuck on the accelerator.

''Then we heard an explosion. I grabbed my wife's phone and started running down and dialling 111 at the same time. Paul arrived just before me on his quad. He was yelling to me and trying to pull him out, but couldn't get him out on his own,'' Winters said.

''He was stuck somehow so we just had to get an arm each and pull like mad. We managed to get him out and drag him across the grass. Then it went 'boom'. We were just in time.''

First of the emergency services to arrive was Kaeo community cop Joe Wright, followed soon afterwards by Kaeo Fire Brigade, then St John Ambulance. The Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter turned up but wasn't needed.

As the fire spread into nearby trees and grass the trio, by then reinforced by another neighbour, had to keep dragging the driver further away.

Shepherd said he hesitated for the first half second. After that there was no time to think.

''My biggest fear was that we wouldn't get him out and we'd have to watch him burn. I couldn't think of anything worse.''

Winters said he had no chance to be afraid at the time.

''You just think, 'This is a bit on the edge', but you don't hesitate. Afterwards though you keep reliving it. It was the closest I've been to danger.''

The driver, thought to be in his late 40s, lives on nearby Radar Hill. He returned with relatives the following day to see if anything could be retrieved but only a burned-out shell remained.

''They were very grateful,'' Shepherd said.

Kaeo fire chief Lindsay Murray said firefighters gave first aid to the driver, who had suffered burns to one arm, and doused the burning car and the trees.

''The people who got him out did a good job. Otherwise it would've been a different story.''

The driver was taken to Bay of Islands Hospital where he stayed overnight for observation.

It was not clear what had caused the crash or the fire, though a battery spark could have ignited leaking fuel, Murray said.

Moments before the van veered off the wrong side of the road, Shepherd saw it go past very slowly, suggesting the crash may have been caused by a medical condition.