A man was doused in petrol but managed to crawl to safety as his hotel burned to the ground after a robbery this morning.

Fire appliances from throughout the Bay of Plenty were called to Kawerau at 3am today but could do little as flames destroyed the 70-metre long Pinelands Motor Hotel.

Two people spoken to at the scene, neither of which wished to be named, confirmed a man inside the hotel had petrol poured over him by a robber who also demanded money from the till and from the safe.

The owner was found by firefighters a short distance from the burning building and was taken to the Kawerau police station where he was showered and given clothes.

A Pinelands Motor Hotel worker, who was watching the fire from across the street, said the pub had closed at 2am and staff had left about 15 minutes later.

"Whoever has done this has been pretty quick," the worker said.

"We're all just grateful [the owner] is okay."

A Hawke's Bay truck driver who had been staying at the hotel overnight said he and four other truckies had been woken at 3am by the fire alarm.

The driver, who did not give his name, said the alarm was pretty loud.

"When we got up it looked like the flames were coming from the restaurant area but I'm not too sure," he said.

"It didn't look that spectacular initially, I've definitely seen worse as far as fires go."

He said after firefighters had arrived and the front doors had been kicked in to access the building "she was all go".

Detective Sergeant Ross Everest of Whakatane police said firefighters were called to the hotel about 3am.

By the time the first fire trucks arrived, the flames had a good hold on the 70 metre-long building and firefighters were still battling the blaze two hours later.

The hotel's bar area was well ablaze when emergency services arrived and it was gutted, he said.

Mr Everest said the fire was being treated as suspicious and Whakatane CIB were investigating.

"As you can imagine, the investigation is in its very early stages. However, there are indications that a male at the scene was the victim of an aggravated robbery just prior to the fire starting. This man managed to escape the fire.

He said it was too early to confirm the man had been doused in petrol.

Police want to hear from anyone who may have been drinking at the hotel before it closed at 2am, as well as anyone who may have been driving past or in the area around this time.

"This man (the owner) may have had a very lucky escape, and this dangerous situation could have turned out differently. Obviously we are very keen to find those responsible as soon as possible so that they can be held accountable for their actions," Mr Everest said.

The hotel is a one-level structure but has a part-mezzanine level and has a sports bar, gaming machines and a wholesale liquor outlet.

NZPA this morning reported the business is currently advertised for sale.

- with NZPA