Friends, neighbours and schoolmates were trying to come to terms today with the tragedy that jolted their close-knit Raureka community last night.

When Yvonne Dudman and her family moved into Oliphant Place 18 months ago, twins Jessie and Hannah MacDonald quickly made themselves known.

"They came over and introduced themselves, and told us which trees to climb and how to use the swings.

"They said they knew everything about our house -- they had played with the children here before us -- and if there was anything we needed to know, just ask them," Ms Dudman said.

"When I brought my son home after he was born they were waiting in the driveway with a bunch of flowers. They were beautiful, beautiful girls. I can't believe it.

The girls used to go over to Ms Dudman's house during school holidays and play with her young children.

"My daughter loved them."

They were motherly, always polite and well-mannered, and never touched anything without permission.

Their dad was very protective, and the girls would always run home to ask him if they could come over to play, she said.

On school days, they would walk to school with Johnathon, and wave as they passed.

Fourteen-year-old Oliphant Place resident Rose Seton came across the fire after returning from squash last night.

"It sounded like a huge fight, like a big mob fight. Then we heard this big bang like a huge bonfire."

Another neighbour, Colleen Treacher, said Donald MacDonald was obviously badly injured during the blaze.

"There was blood, he had blood everywhere.

Despite his own injuries, Ms Treacher said, Mr MacDonald was more concerned with the fate of his two daughters.

"He was terribly upset with what had happened.

"You can't say anything for them. It's the sadness of what had happened to the little girls."

The girls' father is in a critical condition in Hawke's Bay Hospital with burns and cuts .

Rob McDonald, chairman of the board of trustees at nearby Raureka School, which Hannah and Jessie attended, said their deaths were terrible.

"It is a tragedy for their many friends here at school and in the Raureka community and for the staff of the school, but particularly for their family.

"Hannah and Jessie were lovely, helpful and caring girls, always full of energy," Rob McDonald said.