If you pick up a copy of the Herald today, you'll be holding the remains of a burnt home in your hands.

Ash was collected from a South Auckland house fire a month ago and mixed into the ink of today's Herald as part of a hard-hitting Fire Service smoke-alarm awareness campaign.

Flames swept through the house on McKinstry Ave, Mangere, where Cathylyn Palaa lived with her brother and his wife and six children - one of about 3200 house fires every year.

The house was destroyed and some of its remains are now mixed in with these words.


May 12 began as a normal day for Miss Palaa. The 31-year-old dropped her daughters at school and was home looking after her three nieces, aged 6 months, 2 and 6. An older niece was at school.

As Miss Palaa was feeding one niece in the living room she heard a smoke alarm and found smoke billowing from behind a closed bedroom door.

After taking the children to safety on the road she returned inside to grab belongings from the living room. Thanks to the smoke alarm's warning, nobody was hurt.

"It's what they say, smoke alarms save lives," Miss Palaa said.

"Without that smoke alarm I wouldn't know that there's a fire and I want to encourage people to put in a smoke alarm. Don't think it's a waste of time or money to buy an alarm, it can help to save lives."

Her plea is backed by the Fire Service. At 80 per cent of the house fires it attends - more than 2500 - there are no working smoke alarms.

The three-bedroom house Miss Palaa lived in had three alarms strategically placed to cover the bedrooms and living area.

Fire Service national adviser fire risk management Todd O'Donoghue knows how fast a fire can spread and the numbers are stark.

"A house fire can kill you in less than five minutes. We can't get to every house fire in less than five minutes".

Within two minutes, flames can be as high as the ceiling.

"A lot of people are quite complacent about the risk of fires and people don't think it's going to happen to them," Mr O'Donoghue said.

"If people don't have working smoke alarms, a fire is well established before it makes any noise. We need people to have working smoke alarms.

"Fires are extremely quiet in their early stages. That's why we say working smoke alarms may be your only voice in a fire."

Working is a key word. "What we are finding is about 80 per cent of the fires we go to either don't have smoke alarms or they'd had smoke alarms in the past and they are no longer working," Mr O'Donoghue said.

To try to overcome forgetfulness, the Fire Service is recommending people buy long-life photoelectric alarms. Their modern sensors pick up smoke differently.

Mr O'Donoghue said people lose their sense of smell when sleeping, so alarms needed to be close to bedrooms.

Since July last year 19 people have died in house fires.

Today's campaign

• Advertising agency FCB won free advertising space for the Fire Service with Newsworks' Day of Influence competition, which is a New Zealand first but has been running in the UK media for several years.
• They came up with the idea to mix ash into the newspaper ink, which is happening in newspapers around New Zealand.
• At each location, the ash was blended in a machine and then in a pestle and mortar, to remove lumps.
• Ash from the Mangere fire was added to the printing ink last night, ready for today's newspaper.