Firefighters were this afternoon still at the scene of a fire which gutted much of a two-storey, multi-flat house from which at least two occupants fled on Hospital Hill in Napier.

The alarm was raised at 11.12am when one occupant returned after a short while away from the house off Milton Rd on the northern Ahuriri side of the hill.

He noticed the fire coming from downstairs and was later praised by Fire Emergency NZ Hawke's Bay area commander Ken Cooper for deciding against re-entering the building.

Others "self-evacuated" after becoming aware of what was happening, he said.

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Flames burst through the windows of the home. Photo / Warren Buckland
Flames burst through the windows of the home. Photo / Warren Buckland

The fire quickly burst into the top floor facing to the north over the intersection of significant hill thoroughfares at Milton and Burlington Roads.

Its rapid spread was highlighted by a Burlington Rd resident who said he was alerted by the smashing of the windows and saw the flames coming from the upper area of the house. He called 111 and learned the first fire crews were on their way.

With smoke having billowed from the building for more than 90 minutes, Cooper said there was difficulty fighting the fire in the flat roof, attached to which was a sizeable solar-heating panel.

There had been two dogs on the property - one escaped the fire but another was still "missing" about 1pm.

Smoke billows from the Milton Rd house half an hour after the alarm was raised by multiple calls. Photo / Warren Buckland
Smoke billows from the Milton Rd house half an hour after the alarm was raised by multiple calls. Photo / Warren Buckland

"It was a very quick spread," said Cooper, adding the occupant who discovered the fire "did the right thing" by deciding not to re-enter the building.

He confirmed the fire had burst through the "front" of the house facing north but the rear facing the hillside had been "saved" from major damage.

About 20 firefighters had battled the blaze at the peak of the operation, and a support unit was brought in to provide services for the crew, including decontamination if necessary.

Milton Rd was closed to traffic from the intersections with the hilltop Napier Tce-Harvey Rd intersection and that with Burlington Rd. Entry and exit traffic was cut to one lane because of the position of a fire hydrant.

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Cooper, a long-serving officer in Hawke's Bay who has had experience of other fires in the densely housed areas of the Mataruahou strip of Bluff, Middle and Hospital hills, said:
"The hill does provide us with some challenges, such as as access and narrow streets. But we had a good water supply."

He said about 1pm that firefighters expected to be at the scene for for two to three more hours.