This summer the Chronicle is bringing you another look at some of the best content of 2019. This story originally ran on July 23, 2019
Gary Ward was at an annual event honouring the efforts of volunteer firefighters in Bulls when the call came through.
There was a fire at 1 Victoria Ave which required the assistance of the Bulls crew, so they immediately cut their evening short and began driving towards the flames.
They were not the first to do so, two on-duty Whanganui crews called a second alarm requesting extra resources when they saw the flames punching at the sky.
On arrival at the burning building, the first responders from Whanganui knew how serious the situation was and transmitted a third alarm for further assistance.
They set up on Taupo Quay and Victoria Ave, entered the burning building, advanced to the first floor and began spraying water at the fire with their hoses.
They did a good job of driving it back, but they could only do so much and with spreading flames and structures collapsing around them, they had to exit.
They were not sure whether anyone was inside. They transmitted a fourth alarm.
Whanganui Area Commander Ward carries his response gear everywhere he goes, he turned on his lights and siren and drove.
"For Whanganui, a fourth alarm hasn't been required in the 10 years that I've been here. Possibly the last one would have been the racecourse fire in 1997," Ward said.
"This was a large incident, but as senior officers we're often going to large incidents, although we haven't had one like this in Whanganui."
What transpired was a four-hour battle involving 65 officers from 12 crews up against a fire raging atop a three-storey building that is more than 100 years old.
The crews came from central areas nearby such as Ratana, Marton, Bulls, New Plymouth and Palmerston North.
"Once I got there, there was already quite a bit in play. Bear in mind in Whanganui, the issue we've got here is that our support is quite far away," Ward said.
"Our nearest stations are Ratana and Marton. When the first two crews get there, they can transmit a greater alarm, but will be on their own for 20 minutes."
Manawatū Area Commander Mitchell Brown was the duty officer who received the initial notification of a significant fire in Whanganui.
When Brown arrived at the scene, he appointed Ward as the operations commander, which means he was solely focused on dealing with the fire.
Sometime during the battle, a man presented himself with burns. He and another male, the two of them aged 42 and 46, were taken to Whanganui Hospital.
The 46-year-old has since been discharged. The 42-year-old was transported to Hutt Hospital in a stable condition on Sunday.
The fire in Thain's building, a class B heritage-listed building in the Whanganui District Plan, was extinguished by 1am on Sunday morning.
The building was sold after an earlier consent to demolish it had been declined and it was severely earthquake prone at five per cent of new building standard.
As well as standard appliances, three aerial appliances aided in putting the fire out, using elevated hydraulic platforms to get about 17 metres high in the air.
The firefighters had a quick debrief when the job was done and then went home.
"There were some tired people," Ward said.
"To have that many people on the incident ground, about 65 firefighters, it was a fantastic effort by everyone to stay safe."
However, if they thought the job was done and dusted they were wrong, as many local firefighters have had to return to the scene.
They have been called back to the location multiple times to extinguish hotspots, which has been proving to be a difficult task.
Part of the problem is that they are showing up amidst a pile of wood and rubble formed by the collapse of the roof and a partial floor collapse.
Ward said the hotspots are being fought from outside the building.
"Because of that collapse, it's really too dangerous to put people inside the building in that area, so we're not putting anyone else inside," Ward said.
"I don't know whether we can actually get water onto some hotspots because the roof is corrugated iron. A roof is designed to keep water off and now that roof is on top of the rubble."
Firefighters are able to identify hotspots from outside by checking for smoke or using thermal-imaging cameras to pinpoint the heat.
Crews extinguished a hotspot on Monday morning after being alerted to it by the fire investigator and were back to deal with another in the afternoon.
The fire investigator spent about an hour and a half examining the building on Monday and police conducted a scene examination the same day.
Detective senior sergeant Neil Forlong said that some safety issues need to be worked through before police can determine a cause.
"Safety has to come first. If the fire service, with all of their experience, aren't happy to go in there, then I'm certainly not sending my guys in either," Forlong said.
"I got a report from the detective sergeant who's running it this morning and he basically said we're no closer [to determining the cause] unfortunately."