The fire at the Spencer Rd property about 8.15am was initially reported to be in a carport but quickly spread to the attached two-storey home. All occupants of the home were accounted for and ambulance services were stood down, police said. But both structures were extensively damaged in spite of efforts by fire crews from Lake Tarawera, Lake Ōkāreka, Rotorua and Ngongotahā, supported by water tankers from Te Puke and Paengaroa.
A Tarawera resident said she woke up to a "frantic" phone call from her best friend in Auckland, asking her to check on their house next to one burning.
Another neighbour, who would not be named, claimed it took the local fire brigade more than 15 minutes to reach the home despite the station being about a five-minute drive away. Fire and Emergency NZ has defended the response, which is said took 14 minutes. The neighbour said two guests alerted him to the fire after seeing smoke and then the carport alight.
The resident said he was told that someone else had already reported the fire just before 8.15am. His guests helped to drive a vehicle away from the front of the house. "It seemed to take an incredibly long time for the local brigade to get here. I thought it was strange as I never heard the fire station siren go off to alert anyone." He said the fire station was only about a kilometre away from the property and he called 111 again at 8.25am. "I also phoned a member of the brigade I knew at 8.31am and I was told an appliance was on its way."
He said it only took about 10 minutes for the house to also catch alight and the flames were "huge". He heard bangs and little explosions as everything was engulfed in fire. "All the owners and we could do is watch helplessly as their home burned to the ground". "Fortunately, everyone got out in time but our really great neighbours who we have known for 30 years have lost everything - their whole life has gone up in flames." He estimated that the first appliance arrived around 8.33am.
Fire and Emergency NZ group manager Brendon Grylls said firefighters responded quickly to the blaze. "Our communication centre answered the first 111 call at 8.15am and dispatched Lake Tarawera and Lake Ōkāreka volunteers, and the nearest career firefighters from Rotorua.
The first firefighters arrived at the scene 14 minutes later at 8.29am. Eleven Fire and Emergency vehicles, including four water tankers, from nearby, were in attendance." Grylls said this was a "prompt response". "When they are paged, volunteers have to get to the station, get their protective gear, then get the crew to drive to the fire – all in a matter of minutes. "It's important to note that fire sirens are one of three methods we use to alert volunteer firefighters to a fire. We also use pagers and the AMS cellphone app. "We can confirm that there was no fault recorded to our communications centre when dispatching the fire brigades in this instance."
The homeowners were approached for comment about the fire.
The Rotorua Daily Post also sought comment from John Paul College's acting principal Maree Stewart. In a written statement Stewart said: "John Paul College is devastated to hear of the house fire at the home of one of our school families. Our prayers are with them at this difficult time. "We will be providing ongoing support for them. Staff have been generous with donations and we will be asking our school community for support when we have talked further with the family."