Kiwi expat Roderick Fry says the sky burned golden as the world-famous Notre Dame cathedral was destroyed in a huge blaze today.

The furniture maker and his son were among a throng of Parisians gathered just east of the 850-year-old building on a bridge over the Seine river.

"It was just unreal," he told the Herald.

"The cathedral's spire was still up at that stage, it was bright red and engulfed in flames, it looked golden - the sun was going down to the left of it."

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The watching crowd was saddened and "gobsmacked", he said.

"My wife saw one lady really distraught and in tears."

When a man driving past in a car saw the huge throng gathered, he called out to Fry, "What the hell is going on?"

"Notre Dame is burning down", Fry replied.

Firefighters tackle the blaze which has claimed the roof and spire above the nave of Notre Dame cathedral. Photo / AP
Firefighters tackle the blaze which has claimed the roof and spire above the nave of Notre Dame cathedral. Photo / AP

News of the devastating fire at the historic cathedral built in 1160 has swept across the globe with French President Emmanuel Macron arriving at the scene and saying the fire is taking part of everyone in France with it.

"I am sad tonight to see this part of us burning," he tweeted.

Pictures posted on social media showed jumping flames and enormous plumes of smoke billowing into the city's skyline as firefighters rushed to the historic site.

Like Fry, a number of New Zealanders were caught up in the drama.

Claire Waddington, a Kiwi who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years, said the sight of the fire had broken her heart.

"We're all in shock," she said in a series of tweets.

The "catastrophic" fire had left her "shaking in shock" and the fact that there was a strong smell of burning in the city, she said.

"The damage that must be done, it's unthinkable," she said. "My heart is just broken."

Ainsley Duyvestyn-Smith, a Kiwi photographer living in Paris about 4km away from Notre Dame, said she had just popped out for takeaway pizza when she saw "clouds and clouds of white smoke" billowing into the sky.

But it was not until she got home and saw the news that she realised the fire was at the cathedral.

Duyvestyn-Smith said she had done lots of photo shoots at the iconic spot.

People pray on a Paris street as ash falls on them while massive plumes of yellow-brown smoke fill the air above the burning Notre Dame cathedral. Photo / AP
People pray on a Paris street as ash falls on them while massive plumes of yellow-brown smoke fill the air above the burning Notre Dame cathedral. Photo / AP

"It is a really popular spot for photos, especially at the moment because all the cherry blossoms are out," she said. "It is a really beautiful area."

The fire was "awful and devastating for Paris because Notre Dame is such a huge part of the architecture and history".

"From the looks of the photos the fire is in the oldest part of the building and that is almost 1000 years old, and there is also Jesus' Crown of thorns in there as well."

"So a lot of religious people are having a freak out about that being destroyed and lots of really important artefacts in there as well."

Jeremy Olds had been at his workplace near the cathedral when the staff noticed an unmistakable smell of smoke and heard sirens in the distance.

He said he felt "perverse" going down to watch the fire in person but tracked it on news sites.

"Notre Dame is very symbolically important to French people," he said.

"If any building was to be on fire, the fact it is Notre Dame makes it so much more monumental."

Fry first heard about the fire on Facebook where one person left a comment underneath a picture of the fire, saying: "What 's this joke about?"

Fry quickly checked news websites and realised "this is really happening".

"Because of the historic nature of it - my son had just got home from school - and I said, 'let's go down and see this'," he said.

"We thought it would be out by the time we got there, and we would just see the smoking roof."

Living in the east of Paris, Fry's home was also close to where terrorist attacks had been launched on the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hedbo and the La Belle Équipe cafe.

There had been more fear and a sense of despair in humanity during the attacks, where as Parisians were more left saddened by the Notre Dame fire, he said.

"It's extremely sad, I work with wood and all that beautiful hard work that went into making everything in the cathedral," he said.

"I just have complete respect for the building - that will be irreplaceable."

Ironically, the bridge where Fry watched the cathedral burn was also one of the most popular tourist spots to watch the sun set behind it.

He also said he had just yesterday had lunch with friends across the river from Notre Dame, "taking it for granted like everyone does".

"It was Palm Sunday, so there were a lot of processions and people in ceremonial gear walking around."

Kiwi expat Lydia Laulala, who is living in France with her husband who plays for a French rugby team, didn't see the blaze but also ran past Notre Dame yesterday as part of the Paris Marathon.

"It is very lucky [the fire] didn't happen yesterday because there was 55,000 people running around the city on the roads, so the whole city was closed down," she said.

"It would have been a logistical nightmare if it had happened yesterday."