Eighty-nine-year-old Sylvia Latham took a very philosophical view as her home of nine years was being consumed by fire on Friday afternoon.

"It's only a home, not a person," she said, as firefighters battled to prevent the house, believed to have been built in the late 1800s, from collapsing.

A huge plume of smoke had guided them to the house, surrounded by trees on a hill on SH1 just south of Kaitāia. It was clear from the start that they would not save it, Station Officer Garry Rush said, but the fear was that there were people inside.

The sight of several walking aids was disconcerting, he said, but the occupants — Mrs Latham, her daughter Stephanie and grandson Chester Martin, visiting from England, were all out of harm's way.

Sylvia Latham's grandson Chester Martin and Stella were staying in her house when it burnt down. No one was harmed.
Sylvia Latham's grandson Chester Martin and Stella were staying in her house when it burnt down. No one was harmed.

Stephanie Latham received treatment for burns to her hands and back of her neck, but her major concern was for one of their family dogs.

Robert was frightened but safe, but there had been no sign of Stella since she was last seen inside the house.

She turned up a little down the road while the firefighters were still there, however, unharmed.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Ross Beddows said there would be no official examination of the remains of the house, and the brigade being satisfied that it had started as a result of an incense candle on the front porch coming into contact with a curtain.

The house had "gone up" very quickly, he said. An estimated 15,000 litres of water did not go close to saving it.

"We were lucky that the roof didn't collapse," he added.

"It was a pretty fierce fire."

Deputy CFO Ross Beddows surveying the damage.
Deputy CFO Ross Beddows surveying the damage.

He had no doubt that the brigade had saved the garage, however, and he had removed a number of photo albums before they were destroyed.


Mr Beddows said the first appliance had arrived within 10 minutes after the alarm being raised, the brigade's water tanker making two trips back to Kaitāia to refill, but the front rooms and porch area were an inferno, the porch roof had collapsed and the floor had burned through.

Two crews wearing breathing apparatus fought the fire from outside the house. It had been too hot to go inside until some 30 minutes after they arrived, but even then it was a "risky proposition, with the floor having burned through in places, and one eye was kept on the roof".

Dampening down took the best part of an hour and a half.

Mr Beddows added that he had not been surprised by the speed and intensity of the fire given the age, material and design of the house.

Meanwhile, having spent an hour recommissioning the appliances and cleaning their gear the 13 firefighters had just sat down to some refreshments when they were dispatched to a rubbish fire in Kaitāia that was smoking out the neighbourhood.