Shelterbelts and trees exploded into flames tonight when a fierce electrical storm hit Tauranga's southern hills.

''It came from nowhere, it was quite freaky and pretty scary,'' Chrissy Jefferson of Oropi Native Bird Rescue said.

Jefferson, who lives on a right-of-way off Oropi Rd, saw what looked like a bonfire burning on a nearby avocado orchard just after the lightning struck and assumed a shelter belt had been ignited.

The storm was so close that the thunder and lighting came on top of one another, shaking her windows.

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''It went on for quite a while . . . the rain was absolutely torrential.''

The storm then moved away towards the Kaimais, and by counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, it was variously 12km away and then returned to be 7km away.

She said the storm was overhead around 6.30ish and the orchard fire that sent smoke towards their house appeared to have gone out.

Jefferson was feeding a baby tui when it hit. ''It did not stop it eating, it just turned its head as if to say, what the heck is that.''

Flashing red lights in the hills suggested emergency vehicles were out in force dealing with emergencies.

Thunderstorms and hail hit the Bay of Plenty following a MetService warning earlier today.

A Fire and Emergency spokesman said the Fire Service attended a tree fire on Hereford Rd, just before 8pm. He believed the tree and surrounding shrubs caught fire as the result of a lightning strike.

They also received reports of a second fire, possibly caused by lightning, on Jacks Lane in Oropi.

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Nigel Herbert, owner of Tauranga wedding venue Eagle Ridge, said he saw the thunderstorm roll through Ohauiti from his property's vantage point on Ohauiti Rd. Lightning caused trees to burst into flames.

"It was a really active thunderstorm, there must have been 20 different lightning bolts. There was really heavy rain as it went through, no wind at all, which was quite unusual."

Herbert said he had seen plenty of thunderstorms pass by the property but this one was "pretty rare".

"It left some damage in its path."

At least two trees had caught fire, and Herbert could see thick smoke that appeared to be about 100m away from a house.

Severe thunderstorms hit eastern Bay of Plenty and the Central Plateau earlier in the day.

WeatherWatch.co.nz had warned the downpours were "dramatically developing", and people should head inside if they heard thunder.

"This is very dangerous weather with cloud to ground lightning strikes and torrential downpours with hail which could lead to localised flash flooding," head forecaster Philip Duncan said.

Heavy downpours would pop up through inland areas of both islands over the next couple of days, he said.

MetService issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Western Bay of Plenty, Whakatane, Kawerau and Rotorua.

MetService said its weather radar detected severe thunderstorms near Kawerau, Edgecumbe, Waiohau, Matahina and Te Teko at 5pm. These severe thunderstorms were slowly moving towards the northwest.

Power outages were reported in several Rotorua suburbs, including Ngongotaha Valley and Tikitere.

MetService warned the thunderstorms would be accompanied by very heavy rain that could cause surface and flash flooding.

Additional reporting by NZME