Heni Atkins watched as windows shattered and flames licked the upper walls of Whangārei's iconic 107-year -old "Old Town Hall".

Only minutes earlier she was inside completing an intercultural awareness and communication course with about nine others when the fire alarm sounded and they were evacuated from the two-storied building, also know as the Municipal Building, on Bank St, about 12.45pm today (Thursday).

"We were waiting at the assembly point then suddenly we saw flames and smoke and the windows breaking ... that's when I realised it was serious," Atkins said.

A team of firefighters from Whangārei Station, about 400 metres north of the burning building on Bank St, were quickly on scene with one of the first to enter the burning building being Atkin's husband firefighter Shane.

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"I saw my husband in the first truck and he went in ... I was quite terrified. It was very scary for me to see him going in with flames everywhere."

Heni Atkins was in the building only moments before the fire took hold. Photo / Kristin Edge
Heni Atkins was in the building only moments before the fire took hold. Photo / Kristin Edge

The fire quickly took hold of much of the second floor, spreading through the roof and destroying the landmark clock tower.

Seven fire appliances, including volunteers from brigades at Ruakākā, Portland, Kamo and Onerahi, converged on the scene plus an aerial truck and a mobile command centre.

Fire and Emergency's Whangārei/ Kaipara assistant area commander Graeme Quensell said when the Senior Station Officer Paul Thompson rolled out of the station he knew the fire was serious and called for more resources.

Quensell said an internal attack was followed by an external attack via an aerial ladder. He said there were concerns the roof on the building, constructed in 1912, could have collapsed.

"The volunteers and career staff have done well to contain this fire,' he said.

Heat thermal imaging equipment was used and a hot spot on a nearby building detected and dampened down to prevent the blaze from spreading.

A team of firefighters from Whangārei Station, about 400 metres north of the burning building on Bank St, were quickly on scene. Photo / John Stone
A team of firefighters from Whangārei Station, about 400 metres north of the burning building on Bank St, were quickly on scene. Photo / John Stone

A fire safety officer was called in to determine the cause of the fire if possible.

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The fire appeared to have started in the upper right hand side of the building on the second floor.

Several social service agencies including the Citizens Advice Bureau, Dyslexia Plus, Epilepsy Association of New Zealand, Northland Multiple Sclerosis Society Incorporated, Literacy Whangārei, Volunteering Northland, Whangārei Migrant Centre and WINGS are based in the building.

In the crowd of about 1000 people, who lined the opposite side of Bank St watching, was Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai who said she felt sick.

"This is one of our few fabulous pieces of history and to be witnessing it in flames is just ghastly."

Mai said it was too soon to know what caused the fire or how badly-damaged the "beautiful building" would be.

Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai watches the blaze. Photo / John Stone
Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai watches the blaze. Photo / John Stone

Whangārei District Council 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 as it was not required.

He confirmed 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.

Many among the crowd expressed sadness about the fate of one of Whangārei's most treasured building. It had recently undergone an extensive $200,000 refurbishment in 2017 and included painting of the parapets, repairing roof leaks, some seismic strengthening.

A witness said he was standing on Bank St when he looked up and saw three or four youths inside the building near the second storey corner windows. A minute or so later, the teenagers, aged about 15 or 16, ran out the front doors and along the driveway beside the building, he said.

About five minutes later smoke began pouring through the windows and very soon flames were visible inside.

A fire appliance with aerial capabilities was used to attack the fire externally. Photo / Kristin Edge
A fire appliance with aerial capabilities was used to attack the fire externally. Photo / Kristin Edge

The Old Town Hall, at 71 Bank St, has Group B historic building classification and is of historic heritage value to the District.

Noteworthy character features of the building are the fine detailing, scrolls and the coat of arms. WDC's District Plan requires buildings of this classification to be maintained for future generations.