A group of campers fought desperately in a futile attempt to contain a fire that destroyed a historic homestead at the Skippers camping area near Queenstown early yesterday.
Mount Aurum Homestead and a small outbuilding in the former Skippers township were burned to the ground in the blaze, which started about 2am.
Queenstown police now want to speak to a couple who fled the scene without alerting other campers or calling emergency services.
Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw, of the Central Otago CIB, said a man and woman, believed to be from Queenstown, appeared to have been in the homestead when the fire started.
''We're very keen to speak to them to complete our account of what happened. We ask them to make contact with Queenstown police.''
The couple were driving a maroon-coloured vehicle.
Police and a fire safety investigation officer have launched investigations into the cause of the fire, which was limited to the homestead after a frantic effort by eight campers at the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite, which is about 20km north of the resort.
One of the campers, Lee Gamble, of Queenstown, said he awoke just before 2am to see flames in the rear-vision mirror of his vehicle.
He and five friends, as well as a couple camping nearby, called 111 and moved their vehicles away from the blaze.
Another resort resident, Morgan Harteveld, said the homestead was already ''well-engulfed'' by the time the group realised what was happening.
He and another man found two hand-operated fire extinguishers in a DOC staff quarters a short drive away. Using a third extinguisher from the schoolhouse, the group worked to prevent the fire spreading into long grass and trees down the bank behind the homestead.
The homestead collapsed within about 45 minutes, he said.
Gamble said they were ''literally running backwards and forwards'' refilling the extinguishers in an adjacent toilet block.
They were all angry at the actions of the couple who left the scene apparently without raising the alarm.
The ''rowdy'' couple, who arrived about 6pm on New Year's Eve, told them they were from Queenstown.
DOC Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen said it was possible the couple had lit a fire in the homestead's open fireplace.
''It's fortunate no-one's lost their life, but it's devastating for all those with a connection to Skippers, the original families and their descendants.''
The extreme fire risk in the Wakatipu was his ''biggest concern of the summer'', a feeling heightened by a huge fire that destroyed 150ha of regenerating native bush at Rat Point, on the Queenstown-Glenorchy Rd, almost a year ago.
The homestead's destruction comes only five days after DOC ranger Jim Croawell made a plea in the Otago Daily Times for locals to act as guardians of Wakatipu's historic buildings during the summer holidays - including ''historic gems'' such as the homestead and schoolhouse at Skippers.
Central-North Otago Fire Risk Management Officer Stu Ide praised the efforts of the campers who fought the fire.
''They did a really fabulous job of containing it, and good on them, because it could have been a lot worse.''
About 20 firefighters and appliances from Arrowtown, Queenstown and rural fire attended the incident.
The first responders arrived within an hour, and the fire was fully out by 4am.
Mount Aurum Homestead and the neighbouring schoolhouse, which was not damaged, were restored by DOC in 2011.
They are listed as category 2 historic places by Heritage New Zealand, whose website states the homestead was ''probably cobbled together from at least three other small timber buildings'', and inhabited by runholders of the former Mount Aurum Station from the 1890s.
Lakes District Museum director David Clarke said the loss of the homestead would be gutting for the many people who worked hard to retain the old buildings.
Most visitors to the district's historic sites were careful, but it took only one careless action to lose an ''irreplaceable'' building.
''It's a real shame for heritage in the district.
''You don't want to lock the doors - it's nice to leave these places open. It's just lucky it didn't spread into the school building.''