A Northland town is reeling after one of its most historic landmarks was destroyed in an early morning inferno.
The 130-year-old Masonic Lodge in Kohukohu was razed in a suspicious fire which started about 4.10am on Friday.
The category 2 heritage-listed building was one of the oldest surviving lodges in the country and was a much-loved icon in the North Hokianga town.
But without the heroic efforts of neighbours using garden hoses and two female firefighters — who fought the blaze alone for the crucial first 10 minutes — it's likely more historic buildings and homes would have been lost.
One of the houses closest to the lodge, Lavender Cottage on the other side of Yarborough St, was thought to be minutes away from igniting because of the intense heat.
The house was saved but spouting, security lights and wall ornaments melted.
As firefighters finished dampening down yesterday and a fire investigator searched for clues a steady stream of residents came to see what remained of the lodge.
Their reactions ranged from shock to dismay to anger.
Lea Craddock, the owner of Lavender Cottage, fought to hold back tears as she recounted how close she had come to losing her home of 40 years.
"I was so scared, it was horrible. They said my house was a minute away from going up. Thank God for the fire brigade. This house is my life. I don't know what I'd do."
Craddock was woken by the fire siren. She went outside and saw an ominous glow coming from the lodge.
As the fire took hold, neighbours sprang into action, hosing down her cottage and removing photos from the walls in case she had to evacuate.
Firefighters Eva Walker and Lindsey Davidson were the first to arrive at the station after the siren sounded.
Given the urgency, Kohukohu fire chief Neil Matheson, who lives further away, told them to go ahead while he caught up.
The could see the glow as they raced up Church St.
Walker got the pump going while Davidson attacked the fire. When Matheson arrived they set up a second hose and another water supply from a neighbour's tank.
It was just the three of them until backup arrived from Ōkaihau, Broadwood, Ahipara and Kaitaia.
Walker saw the lodge walls change from black to white to red before flames started spotting through.
"It was roaring," she said.
Craddock's home and an unoccupied historic cottage next to the lodge were in immediate danger.
Once it was clear the lodge could not be saved, the firefighters concentrated on saving the other properties.
"You just do what you can with the resources you have," Walker said.
The early childhood teacher was saddened by the loss of the landmark.
"I said goodbye and had a bit of a tangi [cry]. It's really devastating, like losing a town hall or an old school. They don't build things like that any more, they're real taonga."
Detective Sergeant Dan Brockbank, of Kaitaia police, confirmed the fire was suspicious.
He urged anyone with information about the fire or who had noticed anything of concern — in particular around 4am on Friday — to get in contact by calling 105.
Fire investigator Gary Beer said the building was connected to the power supply but only as far as the fusebox. No one had been inside the lodge for weeks and the building was secure.
The first person to raise the alarm was Shannon Tindal, whose home looked out over the lodge.
At first she thought the bright orange light she saw when she woke up around 4am was the sunrise.
"Then I saw flames on the doorstep [of the lodge]. I yelled 'fire!' and my husband ran to the end of the driveway with a garden hose while I called 111. He thought he'd caught it but as soon as it got inside the building it went 'woomph!'."
Her husband then turned his attention to protecting the two cottages.
Tindal said the lodge was iconic and one of the oldest in New Zealand.
"It's really sad that she's gone."
The lodge's ground floor was built in 1891 and the top storey added in 1927, according to Heritage NZ. It was also used as a scout den for many years.
It stood empty for at least a decade but had been bought by Howard Lush, who was converting it into a home. It is believed he was just weeks away from moving in.
Tech journalist Juha Saarinen, who lives a few doors away, said Kohukohu had many old wooden houses close together so the risk of a fire spreading was high.
A few locals thought the lodge was an eyesore but he liked it and, like many others, had dreams — if he ever had enough money — of restoring it and setting up a restaurant.
"It's a real loss," he said.
A power plinth was also destroyed in the blaze, leaving much of Kohukohu without electricity for the day. The nearby St Mary's Church was undamaged.