A priest had to "shimmy'' down a fire escape this morning when his Invercargill home went on fire in a suspected arson.

Emergency services were called to a Tyne St property next to St. Mary's Basilica about 1.15am this morning, to find flames showing from the downstairs area of the two-storey building.

Eighteen firefighters attended the scene and had the fire under control by around 3am.

The burnt out residence. Photo / ODT
The burnt out residence. Photo / ODT

The fire engulfed the residence of St. Mary's parish priest, Christopher O'Neil, who said he woke to smoke alarms during the night.

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"I suppose it took me a wee while to realise what was happening but I came to realise there was a fire in the building.

"I looked into the hallway and could see there was smoke, and I could see the flames as well, so I threw on these clothes that I'm wearing and I phone the fire brigade and then I shimmied down the fire escape,'' he said.

He said emergency services and friends had helped him through the night.

Specialist fire investigator Michael Cahill said the property was well ablaze by the time emergency services arrived.

"The fire was observed coming out the windows of the room where the fire originated, and also they encountered flames coming into the hallway from that room...The damage is limited mainly to one room,'' he said.

Rooms in the home were badly damaged but firefighters managed to stop the fire from spreading throughout the entire property.

Cahill said it was another example of how smoke alarms saved lives.

"Smoke alarms in place does the trick every time...he was alerted to them and managed to get out safely through another alternative fire escape, and they worked well.''

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The fire was being treated as suspicious, Mr Cahill said, and he would work alongside police today to determine the cause.