Terrified families bundled into cars in the dead of night then fled for their lives as massive flames closed in on their homes.
Hundreds of people were evacuated after a blaze, which on Sunday stretched for 1600 hectares, gave Lake Ohau Village residents just minutes to get up and out of the idyllic lakeside Waitaki District town.
Officials confirmed today that between 40 and 50 homes and structures were destroyed.
"We can confirm that between 40 and 50 structures are unihabitable, pretty much destroyed... and about 40 that are as good as gold. There's a more detailed assessment that has to be done but that lifts that number up," Fire and Emergency's Mike Grant told Breakfast.
Many residents were last night being put up in motels and some people who own holiday homes were likely still unaware if their property was one of the few to survive the devastation.
Civil Defence scrambled to supply basic essentials for the 112 registered with the evacuation centre in Twizel, while offers of accommodation flooded in from locals.
Four fire crews have been working overnight to protect homes and a tree plantation in the area.
Fire and Emergency's incident commander, Steve Jones, said this morning that two of the crews were protecting remaining homes in Lake Ohau Village and the other two were working in the Quailburn area.
"The crews had a busy night as the wind speed increased, dealing with hot spots and flare ups," he said.
The Urban Search and Rescue team used a drone at 2am to identify a "significant number of hotspots", which will be targeted when the helicopters and ground crews begin work at daylight.
"Eleven helicopters and nine ground crews will be attacking the fire today, with four crews continuing structure protection work," Jones said.
Conditions were expected to be challenging with high winds forecast throughout the day.
Civil Defence Minister Hon Peeni Henare will visit Ohau today to meet affected residents and fire crews.
But the strong winds that have fanned the fire are set to intensify today, so there is likely to be little reprieve for exhausted firefighters until tomorrow, according to the MetService.
Hugh Spiers, owner of the Barn at Killin B&B, which had been destroyed, said the scene was "like the movies".
"It was really, really scary. The flames were big and smokey, thick with heat; there was no time to even take a photo," Spiers said.
"We couldn't get out our normal way, we had to cross country through a fire break."
Janet Brown only had time to grab her kids and flee after hearing an alarm going off.
"Our bedroom windows look straight out towards the fire and it was our neighbour's house on fire. It was coming at us pretty fast, and we had a house full of kids," she told Stuff.
"Luckily we were catching a flight today so we had our bags packed and we just jumped in the cars and left the house."
Another affected resident, who didn't want to be named, said his family were "shattered" and staying in a motel last night, keen to get much-needed rest.
"We're pretty tired, I can tell you, we've been up since just after 2am and it's been a long, pretty stressful day, and to see your house burn down is not very nice.
"But we're out and we've got no injuries."
David Stone was left with just the clothes he was wearing after his Huxley Tce home was destroyed.
He'd driven around the town and estimated only 15 of about 70 houses in the village were still standing.
Fire and Emergency incident controller Graeme Still flew over the fire ground on Sunday and confirmed "at least" 20 houses had been damaged or destroyed.
He said the Lake Ohau village looked "like a war zone".
"I've got to be honest, it's not looking good," he said.
"There's just structures totalled to the ground. It's black, it's awful. Quite a bit of it is razed."
Eleven helicopters were at the scene yesterday afternoon, along with seven fire crews.
Support was being provided for evacuated residents, who were jolted awake shortly after 3am by an evacuation siren sounding, Still said.
"People are very uncertain, they don't know which of their properties has been compromised, it's quite sad."
The blaze was one of four large fires across the country, three of which were in the South Island.
A large forest fire also broke out in the settlement of Livingstone, about 30km northwest of Oamaru about 3.15am, forcing residents to evacuate their homes.
Sixteen crews, including a command team from Dunedin, fought to bring that blaze under control. There was also a bush fire just off Abel Tasman Drive in Ligar Bay, about 130km north of Nelson.
Far North firefighters also battled a fire that burned more than 10ha near Ahipara from midday. Three houses nearby were evacuated.
Meanwhile back in Ohau, Dunedin resident Andy Winneke saw the "dramatic" fire when he woke about 4am from where he was camping with his family across from Lake Ohau.
They had camped at Round Hill, about 5km across the lake and north of the township, but got little sleep because of high winds, gusting more than 100km/h.
He had to get up to rope down the caravan to prevent it being blown over by the "very strong northwesterlies".
"We had a fairly sleepless night."
During the night, he'd also seen several large water spouts, up to 50m high, whipped up by the winds and moving south down the lake.
Still said the high winds meant it was unsafe for residents to return to their homes yesterday.
"I am very mindful of how upsetting it is for the residents. Their safety is our main concern at this time."
Crews were working to steer the fire away from other structures and critical infrastructure, including the main power lines servicing Queenstown and Wanaka.
As well as the fire crews and helicopters, two diggers and a grader were working to create firebreaks to help safeguard critical infrastructure.
It's believed the fire was sparked by an electrical arc from power lines.
But Geoff Douch, chief executive of Network Waitaki, which supplies power to the area, said it was too early to say what might've sparked the blaze.
There had been no reports of downed or damaged power lines that he knew of.
"We've had to isolate power out of the whole Ohau area, for safety and so that fire services can safety put out the fire."
"We will restore power to the area as soon as we are sure the network is safe to turn on again and when we get the all clear from fire service," he said.
"It is a terrible tragedy. It's had a huge impact on the community in Ohau and our thoughts are with them."
Douch said the company was assisting Fire and Emergency New Zealand in its investigation into the cause of the blaze.