The first fatal house fire of the year has prompted a warning for people to ensure their smoke alarms are working and their chimneys are maintained.

The warning comes after a man died in a house fire on May 1 in Ruatahuna, a small town in Te Urewera National Park in the Bay of Plenty.

"This tragedy highlights the importance of people ensuring they have working smoke alarms in the lead-up to winter, and particularly in remote communities," Fire and Emergency spokesperson Pete Gallagher said.

Gallagher said there was typically about 10 to 20 per cent more house fires in winter than in the warmer months.


"It's vital chimneys and flues are swept each year before people start using fireplaces and wood burners - a build-up of soot can easily ignite a fire," he said.

"People also need to be vigilant when using heaters. Always place them a least a metre away from anything that can catch fire, particularly furniture, curtains and racks of drying clothes."

Last week's fatal house fire happened in a house which did not have any smoke alarms, Gallagher said.

The remote location was one-and-a-half hours' drive from the nearest fire station and Gallagher said by the time firefighters arrived the house had been completely destroyed.

It was also critical that people have an escape plan to survive a fire, because it spreads so quickly, he said.

"It's not as simple as 'I'll just run out the front door'. You've literally got less than five minutes to escape a house on fire," he said.

"And the smoke, heat and fumes are very disorienting, so it's much harder than people think."

The cause of the Ruatahuna fire was not yet determined, however, Gallagher said it was likely to be either due to a wood burner being used at the time of the fire or an electrical fault.


Highly combustible material stored under the house would also have increased the speed of the fire, he said.

Winter fire facts:
• Winter is a high-risk time for house fires - fireplaces need to be swept in autumn, and heaters need to always be at least a metre from anything that can catch fire.
• Smoke alarms in homes save lives - they should be installed in every part of a property where people may be living.
• Long-life photoelectric alarms are recommended in every bedroom, hallways, all living rooms, and on every level of multi-storey homes.
• If an alarm is activated, leave the property immediately and then call 111.
• Having an escape plan is vital to survive a fire - you have less than five minutes to get out as fire spreads so rapidly, and the smoke, heat and fumes can overcome you quickly.
Source: Fire Emergency New Zealand