A young mother has described the moment she and her children ran from their burning home in Dunedin early yesterday.

A fire investigator determined the blaze was caused by hot ashes left in a plastic bucket near a woodpile, which when fanned by strong winds caught alight and spread to the Green Island rental.

Grace van Heezik and her two daughters, one aged 5 and the other 7 weeks, were asleep in the Tomkins St property when she was alerted to the fire by smoke alarms shortly after midnight.

"I was just in shock. My only thought was to get the kids out and run fast," she said.

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She grabbed her two children and rushed out the back door as smoke filled the home.

"I was carrying my baby and helping my daughter up. She was ... quite upset, and then she fell over and she was really disoriented, I think.

"It all just happened so fast."

The house's living room.
The house's living room.

Crews from St Kilda, Lookout Point, Roslyn and Dunedin City stations, along with a ladder truck, converged on the property and managed to stop the fire engulfing the house.

But the damage inside was extensive.

Firefighters managed to save van Heezik's family photos.

Her stepfather, Jock Moffatt, lives just a few houses up the road and said the fire was made worse by the strong winds.

He rushed to help and alerted a man living in a lower floor to the fire.

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"There was a joker flatting downstairs which I didn't realise at the time, so I shot back down and grabbed him."

The exterior damage.
The exterior damage.

Her mother, Pam Van Heezik, declined offers of material support from the public, saying her daughter was receiving generous help from a good group of friends.

"We're well looked after."

Fire risk management officer Mark Bredenbeck said hot ashes should always be doused with water and placed in a metal container away from structures.

"We do find a lot of people use inappropriate containers for their ashes, and that includes pouring them into a plastic wheelie bin."

Spreading ashes on the ground near foliage was also a fire risk, he said.