A Northland fire investigator says Monday's church fire in Raumanga is a strong reminder to update fire alarms systems in community buildings.
Fire crews from Onerahi, Portland, Kamo and Whangārei city responded to the fire at the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga on Murdoch Cres, which was discovered around 9pm on Monday.
Specialist fire investigator Craig Bain was at the site yesterday and determined the fire started in the roof of the church. The church building sits next to a hall, which was also heavily damaged. It is also near a playcentre and the church house, but both were unaffected.
Given the condition of the building, Bain said the cause of the fire would remain a mystery. However, he speculated it could be due to moisture in the wiring or rodents chewing the wiring.
"We really won't ever know, it's a bit too dangerous to get up there ... the wall is starting to part from the building," he said.
Bain confirmed there was no indication the fire was intentionally lit. He said discussions would be had with Whangārei District Council to determine how the building would be demolished.
The church had a manual alarm system, in that someone has to see the fire first before activating the alarm. Bain said this was a good example why automatic fire alarm systems - ones which could immediately notify fire services or security companies - were necessary.
"With buildings like this, people need to make sure that they've got a monitored fire alarm system to give extra early warning.
"[The fire] is something that's devastated a section of the community, so it's going to be quite some time before people are back worshipping again."
The fire was discovered by Siulolo Ahio, who lives at the house just metres from the church with her two children and husband, who is the church's minister.
After hearing unusual rattling sounds about 9pm, Ahio went to investigate and saw the blaze.
"We heard rattles and we thought it was something from the downstairs storage room and I just wanted to check it out because the rattle was quite loud," she said.
"I pulled the sliding door from our house and there I saw the flames, it was already engulfed."
When the glass windows in the church exploded from the heat, Ahio immediately woke her mokopuna and evacuated the house.
Ahio said fire crews responded very quickly and ensured no one was harmed.
The church, which normally had about seven families at its weekly service, had not been in use since lockdown in March apart from some regular cleaning.
Despite the distressing incident, Ahio and her whānau had been buoyed by the reaction from the local community.
Community groups including The Fono, Whānau Ora, Fale Pasifika, Te Ora Hou and the local Raumanga kindergarten had all offered meat and other food for Ahio's family and the wider church whānau.
Ahio said she was blown away by the generosity of her community.
"We appreciate all the phone calls and all the text messages we've been receiving, all the Facebook messages, we really appreciated that but we are safe.
"It's been a overwhelming day but the amazing support from the community has been wonderful."