The 16 residents of a Kaeo resthome had to be evacuated at 3am yesterday after a switchboard caught fire and filled the building with acrid smoke.

One resident, who had to be rescued by a firefighter wearing breathing apparatus, was taken to Bay of Islands Hospital in Kawakawa for observation after suffering smoke inhalation.

While the evacuation went to plan and damage was limited, the emergency highlighted Kaeo Fire Brigade's ongoing shortage of volunteers with only three firefighters available to fight the blaze.

The resthome, Kauri Lodge, is part of the former Kaeo Hospital complex and is operated by the Whangaroa Health Services Trust. Trust chairman Brendan Tuohy said the caregiver and registered nurse on duty had already moved most elderly residents to safety when police and firefighters arrived, completed the evacuation and extinguished the fire.


"The main thing is that all our residents and staff are safe and well," Mr Tuohy said. "We're proud of our staff and very grateful to the police and fire brigade who did a fine job. Damage to the building is quite minor but there's a lot of cleaning up to do."

Residents would not have to move out during the clean-up but would be squeezed up into one of the home's two wings while the other was being cleaned. Other services in the same building, including a GP clinic, were not affected, Mr Tuohy said.

Kaeo fire chief Lindsay Murray said the blaze started about 2.55am in a hallway switchboard. .

"I grabbed the CO2 extinguisher and gave it a bit of a squirt ... There was one person still inside so I sent in a firefighter in breathing apparatus to get him out."

The smoke alarms went off but the heat was not enough to activate the building's sprinklers.

"The nurses did a great job getting the residents out, and we did a great job putting the fire out - but we do need more volunteers," Mr Murray said.

Power was restored to most of the building yesterday morning.

Acting chief executive Patricia Howitt, who has been job-sharing the role since the departure of Garry Ware last month, said damage was limited to the corridor floor and a section of wall.

The Kerikeri Fire Brigade also attended, using their thermal camera to check for heat in the walls and ceiling and an extractor fan to clear the smoke.