A fire that ripped through buildings at the Port of Tauranga today, sending up a dark plume of smoke that could be seen around the city, was caused by an electrical fault, the port's chief executive believes.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand were called to a building fire on Mirrielees Rd at Sulphur Point shortly after 11.30am and arrived to find a well-involved fire burning in a workshop and adjoining office building.
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns told the Bay of Plenty Times that between 20 and 30 staff were in the immediate area of the fire but no one was injured.
"A lot of the staff are very emotional as you can expect," he said. "I am just relieved no one was injured. We only lost a couple of buildings."
Cairns said staff followed "textbook" procedure to get everyone out of the building safely.
"Everything they were trained to do, they did," he said. "They didn't put their lives at risk."
Staff initially attempted to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, but "the fire was too severe".
"They got out of the building...that is why no one was injured."
Cairns said the fire started in a mechanical and electrical workshop and he believed the blaze was caused by an electrical fault.
The fire gutted the mechanical and electrical workshop and offices, and the C3 offices next door were also extensively damaged.
All staff working on the cranes and vessels were evacuated as a precaution and the truck entrance to the port was closed for several hours until firefighters gave the all clear about 3pm.
Cairns said the emergency crews and port staff involved did an "outstanding job" of containing the large fire.
St John Ambulance was called to the incident and were on standby for "a while" but were later stood down by the Port of Tauranga, a St John spokeswoman said.
Police were notified at 11.44am and were also at the scene.
Leighton Stronach was working inside the port when the fire started.
Stronach told the Bay of Plenty Times he saw the flames from the yard he was working in and initially thought a machine had just started up and was blowing out smoke.
"And then I saw that it was actually like raging fire.
"I was just mainly worried about if anyone was actually going to be inside," he said.
"Our yard was completely smoked out. We had to evacuate pretty quickly. I was coughing a bit."
Stronach said the building which caught fire was an electrical workshop.
"There is probably hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment in there."
He said one building was "completely gone" and half of another had "melted".
"At the start, it was just black smoke and big flames.
"I was so worried someone was hurt."
Brandon Daley, a truckie from Paeroa, was also inside the port gates when the fire started.
He said he saw the smoke get "blacker and blacker" and "more and more and more".
Daley said one building was "absolutely levelled".
He said he could see the smoke and fire from where he was standing.
"Within five minutes it was well under way."
Everyone remained calm, Daley said, and he was impressed with the response from the fire service.
A huge cloud of black smoke could be seen from the Takitimu Dr overbridge and for kilometres around Tauranga.
View more photos of the fire in the gallery below:
Closer to the port, many people stopped to watch and take photos, some even travelling closer to get a better look.
A truck driver, who was bringing in a load of wood to the port, said he was coming over the Kaimai Range when he was alerted via radio.
"I saw the smoke from over the bridge," he said.
A Tauranga resident, who was watching the fire burn from the port gate, said he was sitting on his balcony on Cliff Rd when he heard the sirens.
"I looked up and saw all of the smoke."
Another man who was also watching at the gate said he saw the smoke from his Ōhauiti home about 15km away.
Meanwhile, a man who would only be known as Mark, phoned the Bay of Plenty Times from his house on Minden hill to say he could see "an awful lot of black smoke rising up from Tauranga".
"It was very black but now it's turning grey. The smoke is going past the big container cranes so it's pretty big."
Fire and Emergency New Zealand said crews quickly contained the fire to two buildings and protected adjacent buildings and acetylene cylinders.
At one point, there were more than 10 fire trucks and 45 firefighters on site.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand said the cause of the fire at this stage was undetermined, "but investigations will commence as soon as the fire is extinguished".
The Tauranga Container Terminal was closed to traffic for a time but was expected to re-open by 4pm.
Meanwhile, as a precaution, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council placed booms in the water near the storm water outlet. This was to capture any material that may get accidentally flushed.
- Additional reporting: Kiri Gillespie and Sonya Bateson